Book review: Burned by Thomas Enger

by Thomas Enger
translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
Faber&Faber, 2011

I welcome this stunning crime-fiction debut from Norway. Henning Juul is a journalist who hasn’t worked for two years while recovering from a doubly traumatic incident, more details of which are gradually revealed throughout the book. After the seemingly obligatory prologue (which I personally find an unnecessary device) we follow Henning’s thoughts and experiences as he begins his first day at work since the tragedy. Journalism has changed during this relatively brief time; Henning works for the website 1-2-3-News where the emphasis is on speed and “hits” rather than on accuracy or in-depth reporting.

Barely has Henning had chance to get used to the swipe cards and the new coffee machine, let alone the fact that his ex-intern is now his boss, when he is sent to a press conference about a bizarre murder. As he arrives, he receives a couple of other shocks in which his personal concerns intrude into his professional life. Listening to the scanty details of the press conference, he muses on one of the presenting police officers who was the school bully when Henning was young – can Henning hide his dislike and convert him into a useful source?

The murder itself is of a film student and has racial overtones as the mode of death is one that leads the police and the media to suspect an Islamic connection. Henning is not so sure; his doubts are confirmed by his visit to the university and his conversations with some of the dead woman’s friends. The police very rapidly home in on a suspect, the victim’s boyfriend, but Henning’s researches, and his renewed contact with his “deep throat” from the old days, lead him to the view that the man is innocent.

The main pleasures of this assured novel are the character of Henning, who initially one suspects is a typical damaged loner but in fact turns out to be more individual than that; and the descriptions of the modern newsgathering operation, with its tensions between ethics and sensationalism. Henning is an old-school journalist who relies on his own ability to break and write a good story to stay one step ahead of the superficial time-saving culture he finds himself in. The plot itself is solid, with a twist in the tail, though some elements (for example the predatory, sexist thoughts of Henning’s police contact about his attractive female colleague) are rather too repetitive without being developed. Nevertheless, one can see the author laying down elements and hints for future novels, for example Henning’s past cases; his relationship with his sister, a justice minister; his interactions with his colleagues; and the “shock” question asked in the final pages.

Burned is not a novel that goes over the top in an attempt to woo the reader. It is relatively understated, not least in its characterisation of Henning, a man who has his own moral code (of course, as this is a crime novel!), in his case thoughtfulness, intelligence and consideration for others laced with a sense of humour as well as a rather compulsive but understandable obsession with batteries. Henning does the opposite of hog the limelight, a device that works well in some aspects of the plot, for example the way that witnesses and potential suspects trust and confide in him, but perhaps less well in others, such as his dealings with some supposedly hardened criminals. This minor criticism did not detract from my enjoyment of this excellently translated book, even though it is written in the present tense. I very much look forward to reading more about Henning Juul – not least to see if I am right in my suspicion about the identity of his “deep throat”, but mainly just to read about his own style of journalistic investigation.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for lending me her copy of this novel.

Read other reviews of Burned at: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), Reactions to Reading, Nordic bookblog, and BookGeeks.

About the book and the author at the Norwegian publisher’s website (in English), which reveals that there are five more novels planned in the series.