Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 170 pages; 2012. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Revew copy courtesy of the publisher.
Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland is not your usual Scandinavian crime novel. Yes, there’s a murder, and yes, there’s a police investigation. But in this intriguing novella by one of Denmark’s foremost literary authors, the focus is not so much on the crime but on the effect it has on the victim’s long-term partner, Bess.
Accused of shooting her husband
The story opens in spectacular style when Bess, a writer, opens her front door one morning and is told that she is under arrest for her husband’s murder. It turns out Halland, with whom she has lived for 10 years, has been shot dead in the town’s main square, where he now lies on the cold cobblestones.
How he got there and who shot him is not the concern of Juul’s perceptive eye — instead she looks at the impact it has on Bess, a complex character, whose behaviour is often baffling: she makes amends with a grandfather with whom she’s been estranged; gets back in touch with the daughter she abandoned a decade earlier; kisses her neighbour; gets drunk at a dance and becomes spectacularly ill; sits on the jetty at five-thirty in the morning to read; and runs away from a book talk, taking her appearance fee with her.
She never really mourns in the way one would expect: there’s no weeping, no hiding away from the world. For a woman whose husband has just been murdered, is her behaviour normal? This is something Bess asks even herself, but it is Halland who provides her with an answer:
Halland always maintained that writers were privileged creatures. The more foolish and bizarre their behaviour, the happier they made those around them.
A grieving wife who behaves strangely
While The Murder of Halland is essentially a portrait of bereavement — on that count it reminded me very much of another Peirene title, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki — there’s much more going on beneath the surface. This is the kind of book that initially feels underwhelming — there’s no resolution to the crime and the narrative raises more questions than it answers — but the story stays with you. I think this is largely because nothing is straightforward and you are never quite sure if Bess — who is likable if somewhat self-obsessed — is the guilty party or not.
As her story unfolds, she reveals new bits of information that shine a new light on events or make you question her reactions. Why, for instance, is she unconcerned that Halland’s phone and laptop have gone missing? Why does the discovery of a secret room he rented not make her seethe with fury and jealousy? Is the strange pregnant woman who turns up on her doorstep really Halland’s cousin — or his mistress?
Strangely, Bess is not the only character who acts oddly: her ex-husband returns and wants her to go to bed with him; her neighbour makes amourous advances; her long-lost daughter is pleasant and forgiving.
The point you have to keep reminding yourself of is this: what is Bess forgetting to tell us?
An unconventional story
If you are expecting The Murder of Halland to follow all the normal conventions of the crime novel, you will be disappointed. Even the characters within it do not behave as one would expect. But that’s the beauty of this thought-provoking and intelligent novella, which is the kind of intriguing story that invites a re-read, if only to discover whether you missed any clues the first time round.
I love the fact that weeks after having read it, I’m still mulling the story over in my brain. I want to believe that Bess is innocent — that her behaviour can be explained by a temporary kind of insanity or a need to live life to its fullest in such close proximity to death — but there’s another part of me that wonders if, indeed, she pulled the trigger or hired someone to do so on her behalf.
Even the author won’t reveal the name of the murderer. When I met her at a Peirene bloggers’ event last month I asked her whether Bess was guilty. She kept schtum and turned the question back on me instead: ‘Who do you think did it?’ she asked. Hmmm…