Thursday, 14 June 2012

Death Becomes Him

It's always nice to have beautiful new books come tumbling through the metaphorical letter-box, doubly so when the new arrival turns out to be from one of your favourite publishers.  So you can imagine that I was a tad on the happy side when I recently received my review copy of Peirene Press' latest publication, the eighth book in their short history, and the second of the 2012 Small Epic series.  After the dark, icy historical fiction of The Brothers, we're heading back to Scandinavia for some more-contemporary (but just as dark) fare, this time in Denmark - detective fiction, Peirene style ;)

Pia Juul's The Murder of Halland (translated by Martin Aitken) is a dark, deliberately confusing, literary crime novel, a welcome twist on the wave of Scandinavian detective fiction which has recently been invading our shores.  The novel is told through the eyes of Bess, a forty-something divorcée who left her husband a decade ago for the enigmatic Halland, a wealthy, hard-working older man.  Given the title of the novel, it is hardly surprising that his appearance in the book is a rather brief one - within a matter of pages, poor Halland is found gunned down in the street outside his house.

The first Bess (and the reader) learns about the murder is when a local man knocks on her door and blurts out that he is arresting her for the murder of her husband.  The fact that the man is not a policeman - and that Bess is not actually married to the recently departed Halland - takes something away from this rather dramatic announcement...  Once the initial shock has died down however, Bess is left to answer a few difficult questions.  If she didn't kill her partner, then who did?  Where are his phone and laptop?  And, perhaps most importantly, how does she actually feel about his death?

Over the next 150 pages, the reader is carefully inducted into Bess' world, and a most confusing one it is too.  We start with zero knowledge, but as the book progresses, Juul helpfully fills in some of the gaps.  Unfortunately, most of these gaps are not the ones we really need to know about in order to solve the crime; Bess (and Juul) keep those secrets closely guarded...

And that, of course, is part of the charm of the book.  The writer is playing with both the reader and the crime genre itself, casually throwing a murder into the first few pages of the story, then carrying on as if the identify of the murderer is of negligible interest.  By concentrating on Bess, and not anyone involved in the investigation, The Murder of Halland takes us into an awkward realm where we're not quite sure what we're reading for - is it to solve the crime, or to find out more about our traumatised heroine?

There is definitely a lot to find out about too.  You would expect to feel a lot of sympathy with someone going through what poor Bess is experiencing, but she (or Juul) makes it very hard to empathise with her.  She is rude, aggressive, ignorant, possibly alcoholic, and she apparently abandoned her husband (and her young daughter) for a relationship based purely on lust.  While she is obviously affected by grief, you do begin to wonder whether she's really just a rather horrid person.

It's also hard to decide how genuine her grief is.  The more we learn about her relationship with Halland, the less attached she appears to be.  For someone who has spent ten year's in the man's company, she seems to know very little about what makes (made...) him tick.  And I'm not convinced that the grief can completely explain her wandering eye...

While Bess is a fascinating character, the corpse of the story is every bit as interesting.  The figure of Halland towers over the novella, becoming more and more invasive with every page.  The discovery of a possible second life stuns Bess, forcing her to think hard about what Halland actually did for a living.  Could it be that he knew what was coming?  Did his illness have anything to do with it?  Is there any significance in the film poster Bess finds?  You don't really think I'm going to tell you, do you? ;)

The Murder of Halland is a wonderful little book, a play on a detective novel with a plethora of clues, red herrings and characters suspicious by their very presence scattered throughout its pages.  In many ways, not least of which is the presence of a slightly unreliable narrator, it reminds me of another Peirene offering, Matthias Politycki's Next World Novella.  Like Politycki's book, it's a story which forces the reader to pay attention to detail (including the delightful Inspector Morse-esque quotations which precede each chapter), and it's a book which will definitely stand up to rereading.  But, I hear you ask, do we find out who the murderer actually was?

Well, that would be telling ;)