Saturday, September 23, 2017

Scandinavian Mystery, New from Vidar Sundstøl, THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING

If you started your Scandinavian crime fiction with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series, Vidar Sundstøl's mystery novels, deep and layered and rich with character, may provide a very different approach to Norway's singular history and culture. The latest from this award-winning author -- winner of the prestigious Riverton Prize for the Best Norwegian Crime Novel -- feels at first like a traditional "retired police officer" investigation. Max Fjellanger's odd compulsion to attend the funeral of fellow police officer he hasn't seen in more than 30 years, takes him to Eidsborg, a village noted for its impressive "stave church." And now it's also the source of an enduring disquiet that haunts Max and may have resulted in three untimely deaths. That is, in murder.

But can Max prove the interrelationship of the deaths, spread as they are by time, profession, gender? What ties them together has something to do with the church and a family of local sheriffs. And most of all with a haunting carved "saint" or possible ancient idol that sits in the church and has links to the village's ancient pre-Christian past.

The layering of such diverse forms of mystery -- those of vindictive or punitive death, possible suicide, cheating lovers, mystic beliefs, and family traditions of danger and threat -- is key to Sundstøl's writing. Fortunately for American readers, the University of Minnesota opted to publish over the past few years his Minnesota Trilogy: The Land of Dreams; Only the Dead; The Ravens. The dark human evil present in those volumes brings the same shudders as the classic story "The Most Dangerous Game" -- crossed with the suspense of Edgar Allen Poe. In fact, the middle volume Only the Dead may be the strongest and darkest full-length novel ever of hunting gone mad, and I plan to re-read all three books periodically, to recall how complex and probing a crime novel can become.

The press connection with the Sundstøl novels (with skilled translator Tiina Nunnally) is clear in the Minnesota Trilogy, which links crimes in that wild American landscape and its earliest inhabitants, with the lives of Norwegians who arrived as settlers, prepared to displace Native peoples by force as needed, forging their own connection with the Minnesota landscape.

It's less obvious how THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING fits the press, except that clearly there is a heartfelt connection between Minnesota and Norway -- and Sundstøl sweeps sideways into that relationship through Max Fjellanger, whose confused defeat as a young law enforcement officer in Eidsborg led to his emigration from Scandinavia, to the United States. The bittersweet pain of a loving but childless marriage there and the death of his beloved wife carries Max into an impulsive trip to his "birth country" where the losses of his adult life began.

The book's title refers to a space in the wildest segment of the hillside adjoining Eidsborg's famous and ancient church, a space where it is claimed that "the devil" once dropped his wedding ring -- causing nothing to be able to grow again where the ring had landed.

In the community life as Max explores it, however, that location in the woods may have something to do with sustaining a dark and mystic practice that has more to do with primitive roots than with community as Max finds it today. University librarian Tirill Vesterli, eager to put her dream of becoming a detective in motion, soon links up with Max while supporting his research, with Max quickly realizing he has a valued new colleague in his risky investigation:
Possibly a little eccentric, but definitely compos mentis. And clearly sharp-witted.

"Do you have any idea what you might be getting involved in?" he asked.

She nodded eagerly.

"Then why are you doing this?"

"Because the truth is out there, even though we can't see it."

Max Fjellanger leaned back and took a sip of his white wine. That was the right answer. The truth had always been his lodestar -- the thought that it was out there somewhere, no matter how difficult it might be to see. Precisely as Tirill had just said.
Max hears the story of the devil's wedding ring from a local criminal named Tellev Sustuglu, who claims he heard the tale himself in prison -- a tale that emphasizes that the past is not necessarily dead, and neither are some of the dark personalities who have shaped the criminal events that once took place, even a generation earlier. Or more.

Sustuglu wraps up his tale by saying, "And they say a place like that still exists in the woods above the Homme farm. I've never seen it personally but ... So maybe you'll understand now why I won't say anything against [former sheriff[ Jørgen Homme in public, even though he's been dead for years. That man was from another world."

Max's confusion over this statement of "facts of the case" grows more intense -- as does the risk of his life, and Tirill Vesterli's.

Sundstøl spins a well-wrought, intelligent, and intense modern mystery with archaic roots, and much to offer about the roots of crime itself. THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING gets a place on my "hold for reading again soon" shelf, with the books that enchant me because they also teach me about writing, about a really good story, and about how to comb out the complexities of the human spirit.

(And thank goodness for the University of Minnesota Press!)

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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