Jo Nesbo’s famous “Harry Hole” detective novels, and his other works for adults, bear the marks of contemporary Scandinavian Noir fiction – plain language, a minimum of metaphor, bleak often wintry landscapes and cities as settings, a downbeat tone, and themes of social dichotomy. So the sequel to his crime thriller Blood on Snow was expected to be more of the same. It is all that, but it is also about moving on from a traumatic past and making a fresh start, emotionally and geographically. And it does not have an awful lot of blood in it, for a change.
It’s not so much about blood
The novel is short, written mostly in a spare style, and with a fairly simple plot. It depicts “Jon Hansen”, a failed hitman who tries to escape from his previous crime boss by hiding out in a small Sámi (also known as Sami or Saami) village in the area of Finnmark, in northern Norway. Written in the first person perspective of Hansen, it depicts a man who has failed in many ways and gotten away with it, and now has to finally face the consequences. He fell into the “enforcer” trade by accident, when a crime boss called the “Fisherman” believed he had killed a man while the man had in fact killed himself. The Fisherman proceeds to give Hansen jobs to collect payments owed to him, and Hansen does it by persuasion, not killing, until it all goes wrong. The big problem is that he cannot get himself to pull the trigger.
The original Norwegian title of the novel is Mere Blod, which literally translated means “more blood”, which fits with the title of the novel to which this is a sequel, Blood on Snow (Blod på snø.) But if you want to read it for spine-chilling tension and blood-curdling drama, forget it. Hansen waits in vain for his confrontation with the Fisherman – and you will read in vain for an increase in your pulse rate. Though, the whole book is so tidy, so crisply worded and the plot so neatly constructed and tightly paced, that I could not help myself – I actually could not put it down.
Finnmark – You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave
On the other hand, Nesbo’s depiction of Finnmark (“Finnmárku” in the Northern Sami language) is interesting and sometimes quite poetic.
The title of the book comes from the fact that the area, which has the rest of Norway like a thin, wriggly corridor to the south-west, Finland and Sweden to the south and Russia to the east, is situated far north of the Arctic Circle, and has midnight sun from the middle of May until late July. Hansen lands up there, in the little village of “Kåsund”, on the northern coast. Kåsund isn’t real, but Alta, the nearest big town, is. The people of Kåsund are completely devoted to their land. They are bound to it with ties of love, death, faith, philosophy, history and family. Leaving it is inconceivable – just like the “Hotel California”.
Finnmark is a plateau (“Finnmarksvidda”) but also a county, and in 2006, the Finnmark Estate agency took the government of the county over from Statskog, the Norwegian state-owned agency. The Finnmark Estate is governed in tandem by the Finnmark County Municipality and the Sami Parliament of Norway. It is a bit like a country within a country, and crossing the border into Finnmark might as well be crossing the border into “Pandora”, it is so different from the rest of Norway.
Hiding out on the Finnmark Plateau
Nesbo departs from the dry and economical style in which he writes most of this novel, when Hansen (who now identifies himself as “Ulf” to the villagers) gets lyrical not only about Finnmark, but about Stockholm, Sweden, and about a woman he falls for, “Lea”, a strait-laced Sámi. The Finnmark landscape makes him feel insignificant and vulnerable, and serves as a constant reminder that he is on the run. But he cannot deny it is strange but beautiful, much like Lea.
“The shadows of tiny clouds slid across the desolate, monotonous, rolling landscape like flocks of reindeer, momentarily colouring the pale green stretches of vegetation a darker shade, swallowing the reflections from the small pools in the distance and the shimmer of the minute crystals where the rocks lay bare. Like a sudden deep bass note in an otherwise bright song. Either way, it was still in a minor key.”
(P.46 – describing the landscape of Finnmark)
Photo of northern Iceland, right and top, which is close to the latitude of Finnmark – I imagine it could look something like this. The large photo, left, was taken in the Porsanger area in the north of Finnmark.
For him, Lea, and her son “Knut”, with whom Hansen gets involved, Stockholm is the antithesis of Finnmark, a faraway fantasy, a dream destination where…
“…no one can find us. A big city. One with an archipelago and mashed potato and medium-strength lager. We can fish and go to the theatre. And afterwards we can walk slowly home to our flat on the Strandvägen.” (p.174)
The idea of a place where you can be free
What ties them together and to Stockholm is a vision of freedom from a life in crime for Hansen/Ulf, as well as freedom from a life in a fundamentalist religious community where everyone, including Lea and Knut, follows the doctrine of Laestadianism.
The dream of a life together in Stockholm is represented by a song, Sakta vi gå genom stan (lit. “Slowly we walk through the city”). Better known as “Walkin’ my Baby Back Home”, written in 1930 by Roy Turk (lyrics) and Fred E. Ahlert (music), it has been recorded by just about everyone noteworthy. In 1962, the Swedish artist Monica Zetterlund recorded a slow, jazzy version of this song with Swedish lyrics – which had a subtle change; it depicts a night in Stockholm and the words are all about the loveliness of the city, rather than about a guy and his girl: Oh it’s night and from a distance you hear laughter/and you walk home through the town/A scent of hay from a lovely archipelago island/silently slinks downtown.
The normally taciturn Hansen/Ulf becomes loquacious when he describes Stockholm and his previous “girlfriend” to Lea, in the words of Zetterlund’s song:
“The night is short and light and slips away as the thrushes wake up. A man stops rowing to look at a swan. As we walk across the Western Bridge, a single empty tram passes us. And there, in the middle of the night, in secret, the trees blossom in Stockholm as the windows paint the city with light. And the city plays a song for everyone who’s sleeping, for everyone who has to travel far away but will come back to Stockholm again.” (p.127)
But he only sounds so poetic because he is using someone else’s words.
A halfway man
That’s the problem with this hitman who can’t kill. He is a halfway man. He halfway commits to relationships, settling down, raising a family, a job, religion, even dispatching people, which he is paid to do. As a result, he gets into frightful messes.
Does the hapless Hansen/Ulf get out alive, like the fixer “Olav” did in Blood On Snow, which this novel is said to be a sequel to? Does he overcome his paralyzed trigger finger? Read for yourself. I don’t want to give away the plot.
The schism between Sámi and the rest of Norway
But this novel is really not about murder and suspense. The suspense, which is there, is necessary and depicted in a fairly straightforward manner. It is about faith, love, the meaning of life and places that are also symbols. Finnmark, Stockholm and Oslo, from where Ulf/Hansen had fled, are not just backdrops and settings, but they also shape, influence and change the behaviour, thoughts and morals of the characters.
Two places, “Kåsund” and Oslo, represent the extreme differences and tension between two groups of Norwegians – Sámi life and big city life. Like in Canada, there is a schism between the country’s indigenous peoples who struggle to maintain their culture and who resist integration, and people who live in the cities and represent the larger, commercialized, industrialized state.
For the Sámi in this fictional village, “Southerners” (from the rest of Norway and Oslo) are almost as bad a “Presbyterians” and are doomed to go straight to hell, as are people who leave the village and go and live in the city.
Anthem to Stockholm
Here is Monica Zetterlund singing “Slowly we walk through the city”, in Swedish of course, but you’ll recognize the tune. It seems filled with nostalgia and longing for the city. I wondered whether, apart from hymns, there was any song of this kind about Finnmark region or any place in it, but I could not find any.
I don’t think that Nesbo depicts Finnmark as a place to escape to – he rather depicts it as a place to escape from. It symbolically represents a traumatic past that you need to move on from and literally – in a car – put behind you as you drive away.
(There have been many recordings of this song, which has become like an anthem for Stockholm. One of the more recent recordings is by Edda Magnason from the film about Zetterlund’s life, Waltz for Monica, 2013. But this one seems more authentic to me.)
More along the same lines
Read my review of Blood on Snow, here. The review includes some background information on Jo Nesbø/Nesbo.