Pia Juul (2012) The Murder of Halland trans. Martin Aitken; Peirene Press, London; 189 pp.; ISBN 978-1-908670-05-2 [originally published 2009 in Danish]
In a rural town in Denmark, Bess stays up one night to work on a story while her partner Halland Roe goes to bed. At daybreak she falls asleep on the sofa and is later abruptly woken to be told that Halland has been shot dead in the square nearby. Halland and Bess, both writers, had been living together for over ten years. She had left her husband, but her daughter Abby decided to remain with the father. As Bess goes over to look at Halland’s body, she realises it is the loss of Abby that affects her more.
So begins a complex tale told by Bess. It is clear that she is distraught – everyone around her sees that – but she is blind to the fact. Bess’s ties to her own family are not good and she senses that she has been a failure in that regard. The attraction to Halland was tinged with uncertainty but they had made a comfortable existence together. Now her world is beginning to come undone.
There is a detective story, but it is almost all in the background. The police follow various leads and construct theories about Halland’s killing as each new bit of evidence comes to light, but Bess’s interaction with them is sporadic and she does not follow accounts of the investigation in the newspapers.
Halland was well known so there is press coverage of his death. Following this, a pregnant woman, Pernille, arrives to say she is Halland’s niece and that he has been supporting her. Bess was completely unaware of this and cannot believe it is true, but later visits Pernille’s apartment in Copenhagen and finds a room that Halland had been using there. Is this woman a relative at all? Bess also meets Stine, a local woman who seems to know a lot about Halland’s state of mind, especially his views on his relationship with Bess. These women, previously strangers, deepen Bess’s anxiety.
Abby visits and their relationship is rekindled to some degree, but meanwhile a neighbour goes missing and no one is sure if this is linked to Halland’s death. It turns out that Halland has taken a number of steps that could be read as a premonition of his death, or perhaps plans for a completely new life.
Pia Juul has written a story with all the twists and turns you would expect from a murder mystery, but the ending doesn’t follow the usual script and you sense that solving the crime might not be what Bess really wants or needs. Much more important for Bess is how she can deal with her own sense of loss – of Halland, of Abby and of her family relationships. Her sometimes erratic and unsympathetic behaviour is driven by grief and by a self-reflection in which she finds herself wanting.
There are 35 short chapters and the pace is well managed. All but the first chapter begin with a literary quote that highlights a theme in the chapter, but I found this a little old fashioned and affected. The complexity of the plot will please crime fiction fans, but there is much more to this story. The death of Halland – was it a murder? – sparks an incisive examination of loss and grief, and how these can remain buried beneath the surface of our daily lives until a crisis exhumes them. Bess might not always be a likeable character, but she recounts a tale of great depth and elegance.