Where Monsters Dwell by Jørgen Brekke is the debut in translation of a whodunit-slash-literary thriller featuring Virginia cop Felicia Stone and Inspector Odd Sinsaker of Norway as they face distant murders linked to old journal of a 16th-century serial killer (available February 11, 2014).
When I received the offer, I jumped at the chance to review Where Monsters Dwell. I learned the book was a bestseller in Norway, and as a big fan of Scandinavian crime fiction, I looked forward to the chance to read a brooding tale that would also explore social issues. I was thinking Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason…and now perhaps Jørgen Brekke. Couldn’t wait. Somehow, I forgot that not all the Nordic crime writers are out to make a social point, and not all of them are defined by the word “brooding.“ Some just write pure whodunits, plot-driven books where the emphasis is on one thing: identifying the murderer.
Still, has a Nordic crime writer ever written a pure cozy? If so, I haven’t encountered one. Even the writers who don’t explore the underside of Scandinavian society, thereby loading their books with social import, delve into dark areas, and Where Monsters Dwell is a case in point.
From its opening pages, we are presented with a jagged, violent puzzle.
A little boy, in the present day, trembles under his bed, hiding from the unfamiliar man who hit his mother with a crowbar. No luck with his attempt at concealment. The towering man finds the boy and drags him out to the middle of the room by his hair.
In 1528, in Norway, an odd monk has embarked on a mysterious journey. There is something vaguely sinister about this man. He comes by sea to Norway, the land of his birth, and stays in a village inn. He is planning to leave the village soon and continue on through Norway, across fjords, going somewhere, but first he must see somebody. When he sees the man he’s looking for, a beard-cutter and artisan, he attacks the man to take his most prized possessions, his knives. As the monk puts it:
”Better knives cannot be found in all of Christendom."
It's August 2010, and at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, a gruesome crime occurs. The museum's curator is found murdered, but not murdered in any conventional way: he's flayed from the waist up and beheaded, his corpse tied to the bust of Poe.
Not long afterwards, in Trondheim, Norway, a murder occurs at the Gunnerus Library, a repository for many of the country's literary treasures. Inside the locked vault for rare books, the body of the main librarian is found, and again, the killing is horrific:
It was clothed from the waist down, but the torso was not only naked, it was without skin. And the head had been chopped off...
The killer had not merely removed the skin, but also the layers of fat to reveal the muscles underneath.
Two murders done in similar fashion yet continents apart. And both, we discover, have some connection to a sixteenth-century volume called the Johannes Book, which might have been the journal kept by Norway's most prolific serial killer. The book is linked to a set of knives dating from medieval times, and as if that's not enough, the Johannes Book is bound in nothing less than human skin. One has to hand it to Brekke for taking on such outre material in his first novel, and I was hooked from the get-go by the book's heady ingredients.
Where Monsters Dwell introduces us to two detectives. In Virginia, there's homicide detective Felicia Stone, and in Norway, there's chief inspector Odd Singsaker. She leads the Richmond investigation, he the Trondheim one. These investigations are interwoven with the sixteenth-century historical narrative, and Brekke's command of his three plotlines is admirable. Spread out as the story is geographically and chronologically, the novel never becomes confusing or diffuse, and I enjoyed the sense of pacing. He knows just when to cut from era-to-era or scene-to-scene, developing multiple threads of suspense. It's clear he's done his research on how to craft a mystery novel, and what adds to the fun is the book's self-reflexive quality. A discussion between two characters about Edgar Allan Poe leads to the old question asking whether Poe was an alcoholic or merely hypersensitive to alcohol, and as it turns out, one of the characters in this discussion has that hypersensitivity. Seduced into drinking a little wine, he winds up losing his bearings for hours, a fact of key significance later when he becomes a suspect in the Trondheim library murder. Then there's another library employee who is an avid mystery reader, and in fact, through her reading, she has an odd hobby:
“It's more of a mania than a real fondness, I'm afraid.” She had left the couch and was standing next to him. “I collect solutions.”
“Yes. Look here?” She took out a book with no lettering on the spine. It was a thick, leather-bound diary, obviously expensive. When she opened it he saw that it was filled with short, handwritten entries. Each of them began with what was evidently the title of a mystery novel. Then there was a name—under the heading Murderer. After that was a page reference.
“Here I've written down the names of all the murderers in the novels I've read and on which page I figured it out. It's one of my specialties...”
We are treated to a mini essay on mystery novel reading—a section I found illuminating and engaging.
“Agatha Christie is the easiest. Lots of people think she's hard, but I think she's easy,” Siri went on. “But every author has his own pattern. That's why the first book you read by a new author is always the hardest. How does the author think? How does she construct her books? Figuring out the murderer in a book isn't the same thing as doing it in reality. The biggest mistake people make is that they try to stick to the facts of the case, but that doesn't matter at all. It's about the narrative flow, the way the story is laid out, what function the various characters have in the story, things like that.”
This character's way of figuring out a detective novel's killer?
“The rule of thirds,” she said.
“The rule of thirds? And what's that?”
“The murderer is usually most visible in the first third of the book. That's when the author dares to show a glimpse of him or her. The rest of the book is spent trying to present that character as being unimportant, irrelevant, while other possible suspects are put forward instead.”
“And then the murderer is pulled out of the hat again at the end?”
“Exactly. But as usual, knowing a rule isn't enough. There are a lot of other signs you have to look for and keep track of. It's a matter of experience.”
Brekke follows the rule of thirds in his own book. And he plays fair with the reader. In classic fashion, all the suspects are laid out for the reader to consider, and there’s a prime suspect who you know cannot possibly be the culprit because that would make the solution too easy. Aspects of the case that seem connected may not be, and authorial misdirection is the order of the day. That Brekke has a mischievous streak is evidenced by the names he gives people Felicia Stone brushes against during her investigation: a workman named Gary Ridgeway, her police chief Otis Toole, and Richmond District Attorney Henry Lucas. Ridgeway, Toole, Lucas—all names of American serial killers from real life. And to continue the fictional world/actual world gamemanship, Brekke makes a reference during Singsaker’s investigation to the most famous Norwegian detective around. Singsaker asks whether Norway has any experts on serial killers who could help the small Trondheim police force on the case, and his question prompts this exchange:
“We do have that cop in Oslo. I don’t remember his name,” said Jensen. “He solved a serial case in Australia in the nineties. I heard he’s turned into a drunk since then.”
“Doesn’t sound that reliable, does he?”
“It’s worth a try,” said Jensen, with his usual understated optimism.
“No, it’s not worth a try,” said Brattberg. “It’s only on American cop shows that the police call in experts on serial killers after only one murder. That’s not how we conduct our investigations here in the real world.”
Singsaker had known Gro Brattberg long enough to realize that the topic was not only closed, it was dead and buried. Too bad, really. He’d been looking forward to meeting the drunken detective.
He’s talking of course about Harry Hole, the hero of fellow Norwegian Jo Nesbo’s novels, and it’s yet another tongue-in-cheek touch that prevents this novel, for all the blood spilled in it, from becoming too grim.
Where Monsters Dwell is clearly meant to be the first book in a series. Brekke’s characterizations of Singsaker and Stone are deep enough to make them interesting, but not so deep that you feel they’ve been explored in full. No doubt, he’ll explore each of them more in future books. So far, it must be said, Singsaker comes across as more nuanced than Felicia Stone; her backstory is a little bit pat in how it shows a traumatic event led her to her current profession.
Neither character has the thorniness of a Harry Hole, say, or the raging misfit quality of many another detective, so it will be interesting to see where Brekke takes their development as the series proceeds.
One point about the writing itself. While crisp for the most part, it does have leaden spots, but it’s difficult to tell whether that comes from the author or the translation. I’d bet the translation. This quibble aside, I have to say Where Monsters Dwell succeeds in what it sets out to do. It works as both a serial killer story and a book-obsessed historical thriller. It has a final chapter, after the resolution of the actual murder mystery, that is a wonderful surprise. It’s an ending that serves as a beautiful twist, but one that makes perfect thematic sense. I can’t say more without giving things away, but I will say that it might be the first time I ended a Nordic crime novel with a feeling of levity.
So if you’re looking for a melancholic crime novel rife with neuroses and social ills, this is not the book for you. If you want a fun read, a bloody, but in many ways traditional, whodunit, pick up Where Monsters Dwell.
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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. A film nut as well as a writer, he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His Martinique-set crime novel, Spiders and Flies, is available now from Harvard Square editions at Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.