Thursday, September 1, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Denmark, West Jutland

Poul Ørum's intriguing book focuses on a Danish police investigation into the brutal murder of a nurse in the country side of West Jutland. Detective Inspector Jonas Morck, a senior officer with the Copenhagen police department, is summoned to a remote town in what an American might call the boonies. He is accompanied by his crass and jaded partner Detective Inspector Einarsen. More of a contrast in policeman's style and personality could not be imagined. While Morck displays respect for his fellow police officers, shows a kinder gentler method of questioning suspects, Einarsen has a loud-mouthed, sarcastic, in your face, utterly insensitive manner. He'd rather toss down a couple of beers, forget about even the slightest of pleasantries and skip to the chase. He hates the countryside and shows open disdain for the people who live there. Morck has more than his fair share of troubles in trying to keep Einarsen in check.

The investigation of the death of Kirsten Bunding keeps leading to a young man who works as a gofer in a local hotel. He is a somewhat slow witted and quiet young man who acts more like a boy and is described as strange and odd by most of the townspeople. He appears to have had some kind of obsession with the dead woman. And it may be that Kirsten was so lonely that she encouraged his unusual form of showing attention. When Morck interviews the boy's mother she is reluctant to give the police any information. She sees all fingers pointing at her son and the accusations sting:

"There are some people who are always being got at by others... I don't care if that makes sense or not. But that's how it is; and this is not the first time he's been got at. Maybe he's not...not quite like other people in certain ways..." She had to struggle to make herself say this; for a split second her lower lip trembled, but she managed to control herself. Was this as near as she could get to acknowledging her son's habit of running round at night in search of lighted windows? It might even be the nearest she had come to facing the truth herself. But he's never done anyone any harm. He's not like that at all. He's more of a softy – too soft, in fact – and always being defeated by things. He just couldn't bring himself to do such a thing."

Although Morck is open to her opinion he still is convinced that she is merely being an overly protective mother. The boy was seen spying on Kirsten, he was caught sitting in her car, he seemed to be morbidly obsessed by her. And yet... There were those open curtains in Kirsten's house. Could they have been an invitation? Could she have been something of an exhibitionist? Morck tries to figure all angles and not be biased by the thinking of the close-minded townspeople.
A scapegoat, he mused. The boy's made for the part, with his gauche and reticent manner. Isn't it always the same? When a crime of this magnitude is committed, not only do we want to track down and punish a criminal, but equally there is an urge to find a scapegoat, someone to be punished – a whipping boy.
Poul Ørum
Morck spends lots of time in the dead woman's house thinking about what kind of person keeps framed photographs of herself, receives huge floral bouquets, and seemed consciously to leave her curtains open at night. More importantly he wants to find out the identity of an athletic older man who appears in a beach side photograph with Kirsten. They are both in swimwear and are having a pleasant and apparently intimate time together at the moment the photo was taken. His dogged investigation will turn up the name of that man and with it a Pandora's box of secrets explode upon the story making it quite a combination of character study, detective novel and psychological suspense.

This book came out when Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were at the top of their game with their series about Swedish policeman Martin Beck. Pantheon – the American publisher of the Martin Beck series – saw this as an opportunity to introduce more Scandinavian crime writers to the English language reading public. Scapegoat (or The Whipping Boy as it was published in the UK) was their first choice in this early wave of Nordic noir. This was Poul Ørum's first crime novel after several other mainstream works of fiction, his first book translated into English, and the winner of the Danish Poe Association's award for best crime novel of the year. If you are a fan of the current trend in Nordic crime fiction I urge you to check out this early example from one of the Scandinavian trailblazers in the genre. You will find it more than satisfying and at a mere 255 pages a compact, tightly told, story compared to the epic length of those Stieg Larsson books.

This is my delayed entry in this week's trip to Denmark on the Crime Fiction Europass. Other visits to the land of Hans Christian Andersen and innovative furniture design can be found at Mysteries in Paradise.


  1. Thank you for this. I knew nothing of Poul Ørum and admit with reddening face that my knowledge of Danish literature is next to nonexistent.

    I was taken aback by the cover of The Whipping-Boy for a second or two. This was the working title of John Glassco's The English Governess - in fact, it was bought under this title by Jack Woodford Press in the mid-fifties (for an edition that never made it past the galley stage).

  2. The first book I read by a Dane - outside of Andersen's fairy tales, of course - was Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. The book is great, the movie less so.

    The US title is the literal translation of the original Danish title. Maybe the UK publisher decided to play up the possibility of double entendre, who knows? It was a minor seller when it came out back in 1975. Pantheon hoped to capitalize on the popularity, as I wrote above, of the Martin Beck books. Even the cover art is done in a similar style (different artist, though) as the Beck books. You can compare it to the Beck books here, here, and here.

  3. John: They sound like a detective duo a reader is not likely to forget.