Written by Pia Juul — Bess and Halland live in a small town. They seem quietly content and middle-aged, and have been together for 10 years. Bess is a short story writer who left her husband and her daughter to be with Halland, and who has had feelings of guilt and bereavement ever since. Halland is much older and has suffered a serious illness, but seems to be on the mend as the story opens. However, early one morning, Halland is shot in the village square, and a witness to his staggering last moments claims that his last words were, “My wife has shot me.”
The police, of course, come hammering on Bess’s door, but it turns out that Bess and Halland never married. Her life then takes a turn for the bizarre as she tries to unravel the elaborate skeins and mysteries surrounding Halland’s life and last few weeks. A heavily pregnant niece turns up and reveals that Halland had his mail forwarded to her flat in Copenhagen. A mysterious stranger seems to be following Bess, and turns out to be the lodger of her next-door neighbour. A disgruntled fellow member of the parish council posesses a gun. Bess’s daughter turns up out of the blue and her grandfather is dying in a faraway English hospital. And all the while, Bess is trying to come to terms with her loss and begins to doubt everything she knows about her partner, her friends and her family.
This deceptively simple, short book – a novella, really – captures well the denial and emotional bleakness following an unexpected death. How well do we know even those closest to us? The turmoil and illogical actions during mourning, the terrible inadequacy of human relationships and the coldness of the characters are reflected in the sparse, ungimmicky prose.
Pia Juul is not widely known outside her native Denmark, but she is a well-respected literary author, best known for her poetry and short story collections. So tread with caution, this is not your standard Scandinavian crime fiction fare! Even if it does contain a murder, a gun, a detective and mystery surrounding the victim. I am a fan of crossover fiction and no rigid borders between genres, but crime fiction lovers may find there is too little crime and mystery to this story. As an elegy on grief and the inability to fully comprehend the human heart, it is a beautiful piece of work.
The Peirene Press edition is likewise beautifully presented, with an eye for detail. The mission of this publishing house is to present translations of thought-provoking European literature according to a theme. For each theme they’re going to publish three volumes in one year. This year’s theme is Unravelling Secrets which The Murder of Halland falls into. I, for one, look forward to reading other books in the series.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars