Cursed

Written by Thomas Enger, translated by Kari Dickson — Henning Juul is a fearless investigative journalist based in Oslo who has garnered a fair number of enemies in the course of his job. He yokes himself to his work, but nothing can distract him from an uphill personal battle. He and his ex-wife Nora Klemetsen are still coming to terms with the recent death of their six-year-old son, Jonas. While in the care of Henning, the boy was the victim of arson meant to shut the writer up for good. When the grieving reporter returns to the newsroom, the trauma is still fresh, the burns on his face a constant reminder of the tragedy. Although he has somewhat reconciled with Nora, they haven’t seen each other in two years. She is now in a relationship with Henning’s co-worker Iver Gundersen. When they do make contact again Nora shares that she is pregnant.

Nora, who like Henning is an accomplished investigative journalist and workaholic, is approached to help solve a mystery. Her old friend Hedda Hellberg has disappeared and she decides to take on the task of finding her ostensibly in the capacity of writing a news story.

Juul has meanwhile put himself on leave to focus on finding his son’s killer. He learns there may be photographs of his home taken just before the blaze. He thinks the key player who orchestrated the hit may be a lawyer nicknamed Daddy Long Legs. This information is hard won. He calls in a favour from a contact in the criminal underworld, leading to a source who confronts him in a brutal Fight Club scenario: each query Henning has is matched with a blow, and he barely survives the pummeling.

As Henning and Nora doggedly hurl themselves into their investigations, every internal rumination they have points back to the mutual loss of Jonas, who has as much presence as any other character in the book.

Henning and Nora are vividly portrayed too, and Enger he doesn’t skimp on supporting characters either, such as Nora’s boyfriend Iver, who is nervous about his impending fatherhood and also uneasy about Henning continuing presence in Nora’s life. There is also a battery of sleazy lawyers, any one of whom may be the infamous Daddy Long Legs. Even Henning’s eccentric neighbour Gunnar is well-drawn.

To solve Hedda’s disappearance, Nora must look at each member of the Hellberg family, who are reminiscent of the Vangers in the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. Enger provides a genealogical chart to help track the Hellbergs and their motivations and business affairs, as each member in turn is considered a suspect.

The clear symmetry of a plot with tragedy and redemption at its heart makes Cursed a remarkable feat. As we shift back and forth between them, Henning and Nora are mirrored figures: two investigators with shared personal struggles who face grave danger and whose investigations converge in an unexpected way on the Hellberg family. The dual hunt leads to a damning document locked in a safe which reveals old family secrets stretching back to World War II. While we’ve come to expect such devices in stories, Enger delivers a suspenseful, action-packed drama.

When Henning and Nora’s paths finally cross it is not surprising, but it is the narrative’s emotional undercurrent, the possibility of a personal reckoning between Henning and Nora, where Enger really scores a poignant victory. As keen as we are to know whodunit, we are just as eager to learn how they each cope with the mutual tragedy of losing their son.

As much as being a thriller, Cursed is also an exceedingly good journo-procedural, a detailed look at the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism. The careful grooming of sources, the delicate give-and-take between journalists, media bosses and police, and the pitfalls of chasing down exclusives in the 24-hour news cycle – all this is authentically realised by former journalist Enger.

The character Henning has come a long way since Burned, the first book in a series of which Cursed is the fourth, but you don’t feel like you’re missing out by not having read previous volumes. Cursed shows Henning’s edging closer to healing from loss and forging new supportive relationships, and never giving up the hunt for his son’s killer.

It’s clear the Henning Juul series has a large-scale plan and Cursed shows a great momentum, but it is the bombshell dropped in the very last sentence that carries his investigation one jaw-dropping step further and leaves you breathless for more. If you’re into Nordic noir, journalistic procedurals, and anguished heroes, check out this series.

For more crime fiction set in Oslo, click here.

Orenda
Print/Kindle/iTunes
£4.79

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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