Book review: The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

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You can always rely on Peirene Press to get the grey matter moving...

Their classy, culturally rich novellas bring us the best of contemporary European writing and prove that small really is beautiful.

Challenging and thought-provoking, Peirene’s output is almost defiantly original and they don’t come with more ‘attitude’ than Pia Juul’s genre-bending crime mystery, translated here with sensitivity and skill by Aitken Martin.

Short in length but big on ideas, The Murder of Halland is a masterclass in literary sleight of hand. It should be a detective novel but instead Juul, Denmark’s foremost literary author, reaches far beyond our expectations by asking not ‘whodunit ,’ but do we need to know who did it. Which is more important, she demands, cause or effect?

Halland, a middle-aged man, is shot in broad daylight near his home in a remote Danish town but the heart of the story is the unravelling of his widow Bess’s mind rather than the piecing together of his murder.

His death becomes the catalyst for Bess’s bleak, baffling and almost surreal mourning process which to outsiders appears insensitive, irrational and bizarre – stealing cash, making amorous advances to a neighbour, flirting with the caretaker, getting drunk and going to dances.

Instead of following the conventional rules of crime fiction, Juul show us sudden death in all its bewildering reality – when the bereaved struggles to feel overwhelming ‘sorrow’ and ‘grief’ but instead experiences the flow of life through the senses, something far more tangible than pure emotion.

Thus Bess, an author, notes the warm fragrance of wood, the sun glinting on the fjord and the sound of a blackbird greeting the day, rather than worrying about the identity of Halland’s killer. His death fills her with a fury that is unsettling for the reader: ‘I wanted to kill Halland myself... his death was preventing me from finishing my book.’

Indeed, Bess, self-absorbed and unpredictable, is our sole narrator and the characters, some of them suspects, make an appearance only through a prism of her recollection of events past and present and her increasing detachment from the police inquiry.

And to test our perceptions of Bess as coldly sane or insanely traumatised, those around her also fail to act within normal parameters. Her ex-husband turns up and declares that he wants her back, a neighbour unexpectedly disappears and the return of long-lost daughter Abby is not the ‘grand reconciliation’ we had expected.

In fact, Bess drifts through the days after Halland’s death in a dream-like state with mood swings that take her from anger, selfishness and frustration to hyperactivity, exhaustion and numbness.

Her disinterest in the police investigation is offset by nuggets of information, thrown into the story with an almost casual indifference but which the reader cannot fail to feast on – Halland’s secret laptop, a hidden relationship and a locked room.

The mystery over Halland’s killer hangs like a shadow behind Bess’s absurd dance of death, a tantalising enigma that we have been persuaded is of no importance in comparison to the human state ... until the very last page when Juul turns our thought processes upside down in one final provocative move.

The Murder of Halland is not the kind of Nordic crime fiction we have come to expect, but defying expectation is the name of Juul’s game. People, like stories, do not always conform to ‘norms’ and delighting in variety is the very best reason not to miss this subtle and intelligent Scandinavian classic.

(Peirene, paperback, £10)