Book Review: The Tenant by Katrine Engberg

The Tenant is an electrifying debut of literary suspense from international bestselling author Katrine Engberg that introduces two police detectives struggling to solve a shocking murder and stop a killer hell-bent on revenge.

Originally published in Denmark in 2016, Katrine Engberg’s debut, The Tenant, marked the beginning of what would become the internationally acclaimed and bestselling Kørner & Werner series. Officially stateside as of January 2020, this first-in-series translation emerges stateside, introducing the oddly but aptly matched Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner—a partnership of Copenhagen investigators—to the North American crime fiction landscape. This Scandinavian noir, with its tightly wound interpersonal relationships, plot intricacies, and frantic tension, is a solid series beginning that showcases Engberg’s talent for crafting thrills.

Young twenty-something Julie Stender is dead—the discovery made by her elderly neighbor in the doorway of her city apartment. Her murder was brutal, nearly ritualistic, and certainly personal: killed with a blunt object to the head and her face carved with a strange symbol. Assigned to her case are Kørner and Werner, a quiet and interior divorcee and his boisterous professional counterpart. Their investigation turns to those that frequent the building, including Julie’s live-in landlord, Esther de Laurenti and her singing teacher, Kristoffer Gravgaard. Almost immediately, Kristoffer admits to an intimate history with Julie, and that he had followed her to her apartment the night she died. Both Kørner and Werner believe him to be behaving strangely, and there is no denying the circumstantial evidence that mounts against him in the first few days of their investigation.

And yet, Kristoffer isn’t the only one with a suspicious link to the murder—Esther is a retired academic and aspiring crime fiction writer with a manuscript that details the exact method in which Julie was killed. The scene depicting the murder had been uploaded to a shared document weeks prior, only accessible to a private circle of writers for the purpose of trading artistic critique. Any one of them could be involved, and murkier still, Julie served as inspiration for the dead girl at the center of Esther’s novel:

When Julie moved in, she immediately recognized her fictional victim. The pretty small town girl with the checkered past, almost too obvious, and yet with inexplicable aspects, which made her interesting. The dead mother and dominant father, the strong will behind the quiet smile, the longing in her eyes. She was complex.

Then there is the question of Julie herself: a young woman with her own regrets and secrets and, indeed, the overbearing father that hadn’t escaped Esther’s notice. In the weeks before her death, her roommate reported that Julie had been seeing someone new, but was keeping an exceptionally tight lip about his identity. As Kørner and Werner dig through the weeds of Julie’s personal life, they come to discover that this isn’t the first romantic affair she had kept hidden, and that the ricocheting consequences of her relationships gone sour might still have lasting effects. The network of people surrounding Julie at the time of her death wasn’t large by any measure, but as the two detectives exhume the slippery truth, they realize that everyone involved is hiding just how invested and tangled up they are in each other.

Running parallel to Engberg’s serpentine mystery is Jeppe Kørner’s struggle to come to terms with his deteriorated marriage. While Kørner and Werner are partners, it is Jeppe who the author invites readers to explore with depth, and thus, most of the narrative is told from his viewpoint. (This is not to say that Anette Werner is two-dimensional, just that further elaboration on her character might be saved for future books.) Not prone to outward emotional outbursts but nevertheless an emotional man, Kørner is pathetic enough in his heartbreak to be empathetically human and more than just a good cop. At times, the licking of his personal wounds bleeds into his work as an investigator, a character choice that makes him more fascinating than if he had been a superstar.

In The Tenant, it’s not just Jeppe that Engberg has taken care to render in full color; it is clear that every elaborate detail and twisted trick is an artful decision on the author’s part. It’s the complicated web of relationships and wrongdoings amongst Engberg’s cast that flaunts her controlled and nimble plotting. With a story that gets grimmer and grittier as it winds to conclusion, this debut is bound to win Katrine Engberg plenty of steadfast fans.

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