translated by Kristian London
translated by Tara Chace
T. S. Eliot was wrong. February, cold and grim, is the cruelest month, and though also the shortest, it’s not short enough. We should be grateful to the holiday-industrial complex for concocting events like Valentine’s Day and the Super Bowl to help us get through it, not to mention tomorrow’s Daytona 500 and Presidents’ Day weekend.
But if you’re not a NASCAR fan and that Monday off doesn’t suffice, maybe these books will ease the winter doldrums. As happens in crime fiction, an outsider or two turn up, along with secrets from the past that have fatal repercussions.
In Finnish writer Max Seeck’s The Last Grudge, Jessica Niemi, a top detective in Helsinki’s Violent Crimes Unit, is an outsider to herself, haunted by her past. Only one of her less privileged colleagues has seen her lavish apartment, which is fronted by a humble studio, and no one knows that she goes by a common last name to obscure her aristocratic origins. Jessica has other issues, familiar from Seeck’s 2020 best-seller, The Witch Hunter, which have led her to recuse herself from the main action in The Last Grudge.
That leaves Yusuf Pepple, a dark-skinned man in a very white country whose boss regards him as “at most a spectacular Watson” to Jessica’s Sherlock Holmes, to lead the investigation into the high-profile murder of industrialist Eliel Zetterborg, one of Finland’s richest men. His decision to close a factory that will put thousands out of work is an obvious motive for murder, but Yusuf and his team soon discover that despite the demonstrations and death threats, this could be personal, not least because he’s been stabbed through the heart in his own apartment with no sign of a break-in.
A gazillion-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s been left in a pile on a coffee table is the only clue in the otherwise pristine apartment. The daunting task of assembling it without the box as a guide is a metaphor for the many frustrations Yusuf will encounter.
While The Witch Hunter skirted the horror genre, The Last Grudge manages to be just as harrowing without adopting the other book’s creep factor. In sharp, to-the-point prose, Seeck sets a brisk pace that only lets up for brief check-ins with a subplot involving Jessica—those witches don’t give up easily.
He zigzags from theory to theory, all the while using flashbacks to flesh out an incident relevant to Zetterborg’s murder. Cue the dreaded secrets from the past, but Seeck gives that trope such an energetic and skillful spin that it seems fresh. The book’s head-snapping climax is a quadruple Axel that deserves a 10 from every judge—even the Russian one.
At first, a gazillion-piece jigsaw puzzle is the only clue in Max Seeck’s The Last Grudge.
While we’re in the Nordic-noir neighborhood, let’s check in with Danish writer Katrine Engberg, whose series featuring Copenhagen police detectives Jeppe Körner and Annette Werner holds up strongly in its fourth go-round, The Sanctuary. The setup, with depressive Jeppe (outsider alert!) and cheerful, capable Annette, echoes the Yusuf-Jessica scenario. Jeppe has fled the city after an unhappy love affair to brood on the island of Bornholm, leaving Annette to lead the investigation into a sickening murder.
Half of a man’s body—split lengthwise—has been found in a suitcase in a Copenhagen park. Even identifying the corpse is a baffling project, let alone finding the murderer, but as Annette moves incrementally closer, the evidence points toward Bornholm, where Jeppe is working as a lumberjack and the 70-ish academic Esther de Laurenti (a regular presence in these books) is researching a biography of a noted female anthropologist. Everyone is somehow connected to everyone else on Bornholm, from Jeppe’s surly boss to the late anthropologist, a single mom who raised her two children there.
Engberg grabs our attention with the gory details of the killing, then shifts into epistolary storytelling mode, in the form of letters the anthropologist wrote in the 80s that reveal much about her complicated relationships with her children and her neighbors.
Unable to resist helping Annette out with a bit of extra-curricular sleuthing, Jeppe finds himself in trouble, and the fact that his work involves chain saws and sawmills will make you squirm.
Part of what makes Engberg so good is her empathetic depiction of her characters’ struggles: Jeppe’s alienation; Annette’s constant juggling of her roles as detective, wife, and mother; Esther’s battle with red wine and loneliness; and the anthropologist’s challenges with motherhood. In Engberg’s hands, these problems don’t come off as glib identifiers. They feel real and relatable, which makes her work humane without ever being sentimental. In addition to being quite scary.
Class divisions in Charles Todd’s The Cliff’s Edge, set in post–World War I England, mean that though Bess Crawford, a battlefield nurse from a military family, knows how to fit in with the British aristocracy, she will never really belong. This puts her in a delicate position with the troubled Neville family in Yorkshire.
In The Sanctuary, Katrine Engberg grabs our attention with the gory details of a killing, then shifts into epistolary storytelling mode.
At loose ends after the war, Bess has gone to the family’s estate as a favor to care for a formidable countess’s godson, who was injured in a fall from a cliff that was fatal to his companion. The local police inspector thinks it looks like murder, not an accident, so he’s ordered everyone staying at Neville Hall to stay put.
Bess is in a quandary: She’s learned potentially incriminating things about the young man that she hasn’t revealed to the inspector, but she doesn’t entirely trust her patient, who seems determined to behave like the guiltiest innocent man ever. When another person is most definitely murdered, the stately home begins to feel like a prison, and palpable fear sets in.
Fans of the Bess Crawford series know that Charles Todd is the pseudonym of a mother-son writing team, and may be aware that Caroline Todd died in August of 2021. They will be pleased that all the hallmarks of this venerable series are present in The Cliff’s Edge: careful attention to historical detail, the parochial nature of small English villages, the traumatic effects of the war, a surprising amount of mayhem, and, of course, dark secrets from the past! Though some previous books may have contained one too many descriptions of the wallpaper and tea things, this time everything meshes for a thoroughly absorbing and atmospheric reading experience.
Fans of the Bess Crawford series know that Charles Todd is the pseudonym of a mother-son writing team, and may be aware that Caroline Todd died in 2021. They will be pleased that all the hallmarks of this venerable series are present in The Cliff’s Edge.
Getting back to the Daytona 500, I’m doing a 180 and ending up in Ghana, where the secrets are very much of the moment.
Ghanaian-American writer Kwei Quartey takes us to Accra, where his talented young private detective, Emma Djan, has an urgent matter to resolve. The teenage daughter of a Nigerian diplomat has disappeared, and Femi, her flashy, criminal boyfriend, is soon found murdered. The girl’s father engages the detective agency where Emma works to find her, a dangerous mission that will involve Emma’s going undercover at a brothel and later taking a plane—to Nigeria—for the first time.
Quartey portrays terrible crimes, human trafficking and the exploitation of sex workers, with unflinching clarity, while painting a panoramic picture of life in contemporary West Africa—the good, the bad, and the everyday. It’s a long way from the missing girl’s privileged existence to the utter hell of a Libyan detention facility experienced by one of Femi’s people-smuggling victims, but Emma takes it all in stride, the better to get the job done.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City