Book Review: The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg

The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg is the second book in the Korner and Werner series, set in Denmark, where Detectives Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner race to solve a series of sordid murders linked to some of the most vulnerable patients in a Danish hospital.

Killers lurk within Denmark’s health system in this second engrossing novel from internationally bestselling author Katrine Engberg. Our detective heroes from her debut novel, The Tenant, are each at a crossroads in their lives when a body is found drained of blood and floating in a central Copenhagen fountain early one morning. Police Investigator Jeppe Kørner is first called to the scene. Few clues and even fewer witnesses are to be had in the drizzly gloom. All they can gather is that the victim was killed by exsanguination elsewhere before being dumped in the water by an unknown person using a cargo bike—not at all unusual in this bike-friendly city.

Jeppe throws himself into investigating if only to avoid thinking too deeply about his personal life. Since his divorce, he’s moved in with his mother, who has suddenly become far too interested in his every move. His burgeoning romantic relationship with another investigator on the force is also something he doesn’t want to think too hard about as he focuses on discovering who could be killing in such a brutal manner.

When another body shows up the next morning, it’s both a crisis and a clue. Both victims once worked at a now-shuttered psychiatric facility for troubled teenagers called Butterfly House. Since little else seems to link them, Jeppe is convinced that something that happened at Butterfly House must be the reason these victims were selected. But did their deaths come at the hand of a former unstable patient, or is something even more sinister hiding behind the smiling faces of those charged with caring for those who can’t care for themselves?

As the body count ticks upward and Jeppe’s superintendent threatens to turn the case over to one of his juniors, he begins to wish that his partner, Detective Anette Werner, was still on the job. Anette is on maternity leave after an unexpected pregnancy. Home with her doting husband, Svend, and their still-unnamed baby, she’s finding motherhood not at all what it’s cracked up to be.

Svend had offered to take the afternoon shift, and Anette knew he wasn’t keeping score about who did the most. But she was, and she was way behind. Thus she had prepared the baby carriage with dogged persistence and had set off, her body filled with contradictory emotion: unconditional love for the baby hand in hand with a growing rage at being caught in a seemingly endless cycle of identity loss and drudgery.

 

Because Anette was excruciatingly bored. She harbored an instinctive urge to protect her baby, so strong that it frightened her, but being on maternity leave was driving her crazy.

This boredom will drive her to involve herself in Jeppe’s investigation—at first in innocuous, even helpful ways, but then in an increasingly risky fashion. As she and Jeppe individually circle in on a vicious killer, the hunted will become the hunter, with potentially fatal consequences for our intrepid sleuthing team.

I cannot even begin to tell you how relatable Anette’s boredom was to me as a mother. While I did not go to the lengths she did in order to feel like her old self again, I certainly understand how limiting it feels to go from an active life of the mind to being told to use that brain only for the survival of one’s child—a worthy but hardly all-consuming mental task for those with lively intellects. Ms. Engberg’s portrayal of this was refreshing, even as she and I are both advocates for flexible parental leave that centers on the needs of the family.

Ms. Engberg also writes with compassion of the people doing their best to navigate an imperfect health and social system. Her greatest sympathies, however, are for the young people who age out of state psychiatric care. Left to fend for themselves upon reaching adulthood, few are able to cope with life on their own. Many are homeless and, like this young woman, left to suffer life as part of society’s underclass:

She hadn’t chosen to live on the street; she had been pushed out. Society wasn’t spacious enough to accommodate her, especially now that she was an adult. On the contrary, she sensed mistrust and even outspoken aggression from the world, which otherwise gloated about how it cared for the sick. It was a lie meant for the healthy to maintain their self-image as being decent and inclusive. But their caring didn’t extend to the mentally ill. There was never any real sympathy for diverters, for the crazy ones who hit their heads on the wall. They were dangerous.

 

When did I become dangerous? she wondered.

I really enjoyed reading this layered tale of killers and victims, all hiding behind the masks society has handed them to wear. Jeppe and Anette are wonderful protagonists: smart, flawed, and relatable all at once. The subplot with the aging author Esther de Laurenti was also really well done, particularly in the epiphany she had regarding Alain at the end. Overall, The Butterfly House, translated from the original Danish by Tara Chace, is a terrific addition to the Scandinavian noir genre and one not to be missed by genre fans.

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