Written by Olivier Truc, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie — New Talent November isn’t just about books penned in English, we’re interested in translations too. In the case of Olivier Truc – a French journalist living in Stockholm – it is all the more remarkable that the translation of this 2012 debut has been so prompt. Admittedly, it is an award-winner, taking France’s prestigious Quais du Polar prize in 2013.
There is something about that harsh Arctic climate which makes it a particularly suitable backdrop for murder. Some of our favourite crime fiction, past and present, makes good use of the winter darkness and the frozen landscapes. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow whetted our appetites, we fell in love with indomitable bear hunter and amateur detective Edie Kiglatuk in MJ McGrath’s novels, while Bernard Besson warned us of the impact of human greed on the environment in The Greenland Breach. Is there anything new and different to be said about this part of the world? Well, it seems Olivier Truc has found an original angle in this novel – the Reindeer Police of Lapland, patrolling across the borders of Norway, Sweden and Finland above the Arctic Circle.
In the last few hours of the 40 days of complete darkness marking the Arctic winter, a valuable artifact is stolen. It’s an ancient Sami drum, traditionally the instrument of shamanic rituals. Few of them are left, following the forcible conversion of the local population to Christianity over the past three centuries. Then a drunk reindeer herder is found dead. Could it be a revenge killing among breeders over stolen reindeer, or is it somehow linked to the drum? Both the locals and the regular Norwegian police force tend to sneer at the Reindeer Police. They are not usually brought in on any investigations more challenging than a dispute over missing reindeer. This time, however, a little more cultural sensitivity is required, what with a major UN conference on indigenous people to be hosted by Norway.
Klemet Nango is an experienced investigator of Sami descent nearing retirement age. His partner is Nina Nansen, fresh off the benches of a police school in the south of Norway. Despite Nina’s enthusiasm for having her picture taken every two meters, the two develop a mutual understanding and respect for each other and for the fast disappearing traditional way of life of the herders. In the original French, the title of the book is Le dernier lapon – the Last Lapp – and there is only one character in the book who seems to be sticking to the old way of doing things, without succumbing to the greed which has led to ever-larger herds and an over-reliance on helicopters or snowmobiles to monitor them.
It soon becomes clear that the murder and theft are part of a far more complex mystery, involving both a 1939 anthropological expedition to Lapland and a present-day one being conducted by a very dodgy French geologist with an unhealthy interest in under-age girls. You may find that the author is heaping too many villainous traits on his fellow countryman, but there are plenty of other suspicious and corrupt characters wandering through the pages of this book, as well as tales of corporate and collective greed for rare minerals.
Despite the intricate plot and constant buzz of activity, this is not a quick read at around 400 pages. Those who love being plunged into a world few know anything about, full of unusual details, will race through the book quite happily. For die hard thriller readers, however, the background information about the Sami lifestyle will slow down the action and they may wish that Olivier Truc had left his TV documentary days behind.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars