APRIL 2, 2016
IN 2011, two works of noir fiction from Denmark arrived in English-speaking countries with a resonance beyond the usual crime story’s appearance on the scene. The Danish television series The Killing, originally titled Forbrydelsen (“the crime”), began airing with subtitles in the United Kingdom in January, and months later, an American adaptation of the series began airing on AMC. The year would also see the publication of a translated novel by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase. An international success, the Danish noir novel would become the first part of a tetralogy. The fourth and final book of the Kaaberbøl and Friis series, The Considerate Killer, was published in English this March.
The original The Killing was a 20-episode series focused on the murder of a teenage girl and the depressed but driven cop who runs the investigation, Sarah Lund. The brooding tone of the series, and its alternating focus on the police, the politicians, and the family of the victim, created a sensation that lasted through three seasons. (The less effective and less successful US spinoff would last four seasons, concluding on Netflix in 2014.) Throughout, it is Sarah, as portrayed in the original series by Sofie Gråbøl, who is at the center of the story (and even the sweaters she wears became a fan obsession in the United Kingdom): among all the obsessed and self-destructive detectives in noir screen fictions, Sarah is one of the most distinctive, believable, and sympathetic.
The Boy in the Suitcase is an unrelenting roller-coaster ride with a vivid cast of characters and, like The Killing, a unique central character. At first, the reader has little sense of who might be the series’ emerging hero. The story only becomes clear gradually, over halfway into the novel. Four plotlines that at first do not intersect follow a prologue in which someone who has been asked to pick up a heavy suitcase looks in it to discover a young boy, alive, neatly folded inside. Then we meet Jan, an anxious architect; Jucas, a criminal who yearns for a normal family life with his girlfriend but has one more job to do; Sigita, a Lithuanian single mother who has been plunged into a paranoiac’s nightmare; and Nina Borg, a nurse who seems to be fleeing her family responsibilities by becoming involved in rescue missions. These people are caught up in a series of cascading errors, beginning with an airplane that is delayed when it strikes a seagull. Along the way, we gain and then lose sympathy and respect for the characters, resulting in a fully drawn and multivalent cast. It is Nina in particular, obsessive-compulsive or perhaps high-functioning autistic, launching into rescue missions less from bravery than from anxiety, who emerges as a new sort of icon for crime fiction.
By the time the sequel, Invisible Murder, appeared a year later, readers knew that Nina was the main character, and she would continue as the series’ protagonist in the third and fourth books as well. In Invisible Murder, Nina has promised her husband not to volunteer with the asylum network that drew her into the previous story’s intrigue, but after she gets a call about sick Roma children living in an abandoned garage, Nina cannot help but get involved. When she arrives and tries to offer medical assistance, she is rebuffed and threatened by the squatters in the garage. Her attempts to help the children draw her and a half-Roma law student into a plot to steal radioactive material from an abandoned hospital in Hungary. The third book in the series, Death of a Nightingale, deals with an asylum-seeker from Ukraine who is desperate to protect her daughter, stuck in a refugee camp on her own after her mother is arrested. The violence and desperation experienced by the refugees is timely (even more so now than in 2013, when the book appeared in English) and tense, drawing the reader forward (and drawing in the dedicated, even obsessive Nina again) with the intricacies of the plot, the convincing but not always sympathetic characters, and the skill of the writers.
Kaaberbøl and Friis had extensive writing careers before The Boy in the Suitcase appeared but prevously had not demonstrated their skill in adapting noir to their Danish homeland. Kaaberbøl was the author of several fantasy series for children, and Friis was a journalist. Like the co-authors of the first great Scandinavian crime series, the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjöwall (a poet) and Per Wahlöö (an activist and thriller writer), Kaaberbøl and Friis have brought their diverse talents as writers into a seamless collaboration that blends a clear, direct style with imagination and social consciousness.
The most recent book, The Considerate Killer, is a bit different from the first three. Nina’s involvement in humanitarian rescue takes place only in brief flashbacks, during a vacation in Manila. The present action begins after she is attacked outside a grocery store in Viborg, where she is staying with her convalescent mother. The Manila-related plot focuses on a struggling young medical student who is drawn into a criminal enterprise by a friend. This plot develops slowly, unlike the rapid and violent incursions of foreigners in the previous books. Nina is also less focused on the armies of the needy this time around; she has finally lost her husband (who could never understand her obsession with helping others), and grows closer to the melancholy detective (suggestively named Søren Kierkegaard) who has helped her out throughout the series and suffered because of his involvement. Neither Nina nor Søren is currently employed; she has stopped working for rescue organizations to care for her sick mother, and he’s on sick leave after injuries incurred in previous novels. But they are both ensnared, again, in a thriller that begins with a disaster in which Nina is, for once, mostly a witness.
The Considerate Killer deals with the same kind of casual evil and unforeseen circumstances as the earlier Nina Borg books, and Kaaberbøl and Friis maintain the same high standard in their writing, but the book suffers somewhat from its lack of momentum. Clearly, the story is aiming for a sort of resolution for Nina, who has been violently bounced among refugees, sociopaths, the respectable but unthinking, self-obsessed people who set the plots in motion, and the family to which she can’t quite commit herself. She has reached a low point, in the loss of her marriage, her estrangement from her children, and her current depressed state of mind, and the plot of The Considerate Killer circles around her despair (the “sickness unto death,” according to Søren’s 19th-century namesake) and the rapidly diminishing options for her survival.
The power of the series as a whole, notwithstanding the relentlessness of the first three stories and the somewhat slower development of the last, resides in the authors’ creation of one of the most distinctive characters in contemporary fiction. Lene Kaaberbøl has begun a new, historical crime series on her own, the first book having been recently translated as Doctor Death, but whatever the new series offers, the Nina Borg books by Kaaberbøl and her collaborator Agnete Friis have given us a saga in which, as is the case with The Killing, the intensity of the woman around whom the story swirls draws us in and holds our attention.