I had no barometer for the Danes. Wait, I’m lying. There was Peter Høeg and Smilla’s Sense of Snow. But that was fifteen years ago and what I remember most was the white stuff of the title and how Smilla was an expert in it because she had family from Greenland. That helped me keep straight that Greenland was the snowy one and Iceland was the one to visit. Keep in mind I was thirteen when I read it. Couldn’t even see the movie when it came out two years later. More Danish context denied.
Now here comes The Boy in the Suitcase in 2011, and I’m feeling adrift in the Nordic crime fiction sea. Had Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis been Swedes, no problem. I’d get my bearings with Marklund and Mankell and Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Norwegians? Nesbø and Fossum. Finns? American ex-pat James Thompson has me covered. Icelanders? Yrsa Sigurdardottir for the win.
So I went into Boy thinking only about what it was not. And now that I’ve finished it—twice, actually—I’m still thinking about what it’s not.
It’s not about human trafficking. It’s not about the dark underbelly of immigration. It’s not about parents who’d do anything to protect their children and the unavoidable bloodshed that occurs when those mothers and fathers cross paths with people who are paid to get jobs done, body count be damned. It’s not about any one of those, because it’s about all of them and how they come together in a perfect storm in the character of Copenhagen Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. She’s no Florence Nightingale, though, no beacon of hope and perfection shining through the night. Nina might be good at her job but her personal life is barely holding together. This is refreshing, not because I’m a reader who’s rooting for protagonists to fail from page one but because Kaaberbøl and Friis give Nina not only a unique occupation but a family life that leaves stereotypes behind.
As much as I love cop, private detective and crime reporter heroes—and I really do, my shelf is overflowing with all manner of their exploits—sometimes I want to look at death through someone else’s eyes. And who better than a nurse who not only treats refugees, but who’s traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous war zones as a relief worker? Better yet, she’s not tossing back single malt alone in her apartment, listening to jazz. What makes Nina compelling is her compassion for Mikas—the three-year-old boy whom she finds in a suitcase in a railway station locker following a cryptic message from a friend—and its seeming incompatibility with the fractured relationship she has with her husband and two children. Soon after she discovers Mikas and evades detection by a violent man intent on prying open the same locker, Nina makes what turns into a typical call to her husband, Morten, realizing she’s neglected to pick up their own son, Anton, from his afterschool program:
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, trying to press her ear more closely to the phone. “I just forgot.”
“Yes, I suppose you did,” he said, his voice cold and weary. “I thought things were better. I thought you were going to stop forgetting your own family. Any idea when you will be home?”
Nina swallowed. The boy had turned slightly, and one small hand opened and then closed around her arm. His eyes were still closed.
“Oh, I supposed I can leave here around eight,” she said, trying to sound carefree and unworried. “It won’t be very late, I promise.”
Again the static hiss of wind and a connection on the point of breaking up.
“I’ll see you when I see you,” said Morten, the last few words nearly lost in the roar of the wind and the sounds of Anton’s eager pestering. “Or not. It’s up to you.”
Of course, Nina is lying and she won’t be home by eight, or even that same night, but she doesn’t know that yet. The reader suspects it, though, and it’s the fact that her behavior falls into the grey area between acceptable and not that makes her fascinating. There’s also the fact that if she were a man choosing his work—or, as it turns out, a dangerous mission to save the life of a child from ruthless criminals—over the temporary happiness and unity of his own family, he’d receive considerably less flack from his spouse. As a reader, I was in an intriguing bind: as much as I wanted Nina out in world, protecting Mikas, I also wanted her to devote as much attention to her own children. Not because she belonged at home, or I thought her work with the Red Cross was less important than mending familial rifts, but because I wanted the two halves of her lives to be balanced, rather than one existing as means of escape from the other.
By the end, I’d even warmed up to Morten, whom in the beginning I’d wanted to stuff in his own suitcase. Their relationship needed work—whose doesn’t?—but I was guardedly optimistic about the future. And my own future as a reader of Danish crime fiction? I’m well on my way to becoming an expert on all things dark and Dane by the time Soho Crime publishes the second Nina Borg installment. It can’t come soon enough for my Danish education.
Jordan Foster grew up in a mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon. She has a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University, which she’s slowly paying off by writing about crime fiction for Publishers Weekly and Bookish. She’s back in Portland, where it’s nice and rainy and there are endless places to stash bodies. She tweets @jordanfoster13.