This past week I have read two excellent Danish books, The Serbian Dane by Lief Davidsen and The Exception by Christian Jungersen. I read these because they featured on Karen Meek of Euro Crime’s list of best reads of 2007, and as I have enjoyed various Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish fiction, I thought I’d give Denmark a whirl.
Both books are intelligently well-written, and both have sympathetic translations. The Serbian Dane is a very tense thriller about a visit to Denmark by an Iranian author under threat of a fatwa. The story concerns the local journalist who is covering the story, the policeman in charge of the security arrangements, and the putative assassin. Chapters switch between the viewpoints of these three characters: we learn about their domestic lives, pasts, and emotions, all of which cause sympathies to alternate and lead to an almost-unbearable level of excitement. It is really very good indeed: a book that threatens to make you to miss your stop if reading it on the bus or train.
The Exception is a strikingly original work about four women who work at the Danish Centre for Genocide Information, and their smarmy (male) boss. One of the women has previously been held hostage herself while visiting Kenya. As with The Serbian Dane, the story is told from the viewpoints of the women in turn, interspersed with articles about genocide that two of the women write — very powerful pieces that make one despair about the world we live in. The book itself is a clever parallel, between first the very broad one of the Centre’s mission of understanding what drives these regimes — what makes a person obey orders to kill and torture? — and second, in microcosm, an intensely claustrophobic story of the four women, one of whom is nastily oppressed by the others. But is she, or is it all in her mind? By switching viewpoints, the author has us wrong-footed right to the end as we learn perhaps more than we want to know about human cruelty on a global and a personal level, and about the intersection of the two, where political persuasions affect individuals’ lives.
Although these books have quite different plots, they share in common the elements of modern crime fiction that I find so fascinating: the struggle of a society to come to terms with its diversity, not only in terms of individual variation, but on a large and rapid scale, via immigration after the end of the Cold War and, more recently, via the expansion of the European Union. (Although both these books were published in English last year, they were written 10 years ago.) In particular, Scandinavian countries, with their relatively small populations, are traditionally seen as epitomising the success of the welfare state. The books from these regions that I’ve been reading for the past year or two are by authors looking at their cultures with an unflinching lens, making for compulsive reading.
See these links for reviews of The Exception and The Serbian Dane. I strongly recommend these books, both of which far transcend the "crime fiction" pigeonhole.