Burned, by Thomas Enger
Meet a new Norwegian crime fiction writer: Thomas Enger. I first introduced him in a post on Nordic Bookblog about one year ago: A writer whose name you will probably learn well in the years ahead if you’re into Scandinavian crime fiction. Burned (Skinndød) is his debut novel, but the Norwegian publisher Gyldendal thought it was outstanding and signed a contract with him for a whole series of books. Gyldendal never does that with debutantes. They describe Burned as probably “the best crime novel manuscript we’ve ever received from a new writer”.
Burned is the first book in a planned series featuring the crime journalist Henning Juul. After Gyldendal bought it, it has been sold to 15 countries, including England, Denmark, Italy and the USA. The next book in the series, Phantom pain (Fantomsmerte) is due in Norway on August 20th this year.
Henning Juul, Thomas Enger's main protagonist, is a somewhat tortured Norwegian internet newspaper reporter. He recently lost his son Jonas in a fire which also burned down his flat and severely injured Henning. He is scarred both inside and out, and ridden by guilt.
Not only has he lost his son – most of his world is in ruins: His wife has left him and now lives with another reporter. His mother is a drunk. He is not on speaking terms with his sister Trine. Also, he is compulsive: He needs to constantly check his fire alarms and change their batteries. Life is tough for Juul. He needs a change in his life. He needs to get back to working. Turn his attention away from the ruins and scars that are his life, and ride his Vespa back into real life.
So Henning returns to work, where he is no longer the grand master of reporting - the news hound everybody looks up to and admires – rather, he is a potentially troublesome colleague with a new and inexperienced boss. The first case he is assigned is one that seems to be the first of its kind in Norway: In a solitary tent somebody finds the body of a half-buried woman who has been stoned to death. There are marks from lashing across her back and one of her hands has been severed. It appears to be a Sharia law-type of killing. Yet, this is Norway. Things like this do not happen in Norway.
The deceased turns out to be a young female student, an ethnic Norwegian, named Henriette Hagerup. Her boyfriend is a Muslim. And Henriette was known to be flirtatious. It seems to the police to be a slam-dunk case. They don’t mind that. There are other things to do.
To Henning there is something about this case, a hard to pin-down gut kind of a feeling he has, that makes him feel there is more to this story. He begins to dig into the dead girl’s background, her boyfriend, Marhoni, her friends and her life. As it is hard for him to put his finger on it and verbalize his feelings, it is difficult for him to defend spending time on this story , but even so he can’t let go. He is vulnerable at this point in his life, and the stakes are correspondingly high. He can ill-afford to be wrong. When another life is lost, the stakes get even higher.
Burned is fascinating. It’s hard for me to pin-point exactly why it grabbed me the way it did. Perhaps it was because of the complex character of Henning Juul. His eccentricities and strangeness, his vulnerable position and the sense one gets that he is somehow fragile, and, in contrast, his vast experience and obvious skills as a reporter. Or perhaps it was the plot Thomas Enger has created – which is a winner. Or the storytelling and style, which is rich, convoluted and multi dimensional. It could have been any of these – any of these would have been enough to glue me to the book. It could have been all these things – they are all there. Either way, I feel quite certain you too will enjoy Burned by Thomes Enger. Greatly! Oh – and did I mention that the ending is superb?