The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul

I read about The Murder of Halland on Savidge Reads earlier this year & was immediately intrigued. I haven’t read much Scandinavian crime fiction as I have an impression that it’s quite brutal & edgy, full of serial killers in remote locations & I like my crime a little softer than that. However, Simon’s review was so enticing that I was quick to get hold of a copy. I am a fan of Danish television though & loved The Eagle, Unit One &, more recently, Borgen.

Pia Juul is a prize winning writer in Denmark. The Murder of Halland won the Danske Banks Litteraturpris in 2009. The prize is given to an established writer & Pia Juul has been published for over 30 years, writing poetry & short stories as well as novels.

The Murder of Halland is the story of Bess who wakes one morning to be told that her partner, Halland, has been found murdered in the square just outside their house. Bess is initially suspected of the murder as Halland’s last words, heard by the man who found him, sounded like “My wife has shot me”. Detectives arrive & soon seem to discount Bess as the shot was from a rifle fired some distance away. Bess is numb & uncomprehending as she had spent the night working in the study & had fallen asleep at her desk. Halland was leaving the house early anyway & what Bess thought was the bang of the front door as he left was actually the shot that killed him.

Bess & Halland’s relationship is gradually revealed as Bess sits in the house trying to comprehend what has happened. Bess had left her husband, Troels, & daughter, Abby, after meeting Halland in a bookshop 10 years ago. He was older than she was &, although she loved him, she never felt completely comfortable in the relationship. She also regretted the loss of her daughter as Abby hasn’t spoken to Bess since she left. Bess feels like a guest in Halland’s house, even after such a long time. Her study is the only place she feels at peace, surrounded by her belongings.

Now that Halland is dead, Bess discovers that he had secrets. She discovers two keys on his keyring & has no idea what they are for. His laptop & a lot of his papers are missing & the detective, Funder, is full of questions that she can’t answer. Bess takes long walks & keeps bumping into a mysterious stranger who turns out to be staying with her neighbour, Brandt. Her other neighbour, Inger, is kind & leaves casseroles on the doorstep but Bess doesn’t seem to be able to make the appropriate responses to other people’s grief & questions. Halland’s sister’s foster daughter, Pernille, arrives. She’s heavily pregnant & reveals that Halland had been renting a room in her apartment for some time. Pernille seems more interested in who’s going to pay her rent now that Halland is dead but her arrival does solve the mystery of the keys & the missing laptop.

Bess drifts through the days, remembering the past & being pushed by others through the conventional stages of mourning – the funeral, the visits from friends, the emails & texts from colleagues & acquaintances. Everything is seen through her eyes so we only read about the murder investigation when she is involved, answering questions or deciding what to withhold. Bess’s decision to leave her husband led to estrangement from her own family. Her mother calls on the morning of Halland’s death to tell her that her grandfather in England is dying & wants to speak to her. In that one conversation we learn all we need to know of the distance between Bess & her mother.

This is a very economical book. Only 160pp long & all the narrative is from Bess’s point of view. Instead of leading the reader to sympathise with Bess, the narrative is so honest that it discourages such an easy response. Bess is taciturn, prickly, she doesn’t always respond in the “approved” way. She is terse with Pernille, partly because of her suspicions about her relationship with Halland, but she bullies her every step of the way. She drinks too much & goes to a nightclub on the night of the funeral. Bess realises how much she didn’t know about Halland & about their relationship. This isn’t a conventional murder mystery with the clues laid out & red herrings everywhere. We do find out the solution to Halland’s death & some of the other mysteries in the story but everything isn’t tied up neatly at the end. The subject of the book becomes Bess & her grieving rather than the investigation into Halland’s murder.

I found The Murder of Halland a compelling book. I read it in one sitting, in a couple of hours. I was drawn on by the short chapters, the elusive nature of Bess’s narration &, as the blurb at the beginning recommends, don’t skip the quotes at the beginning of the chapters.

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