If you want tense, go to Odense

Even hardened veterans of Scandinavian crime fiction may not know much about the city of Odense. Located in the middle of the Danish island of Funen, somewhere between Copenhagen and Aalborg, it’s the country’s third largest city. Odense hasn’t featured in many crime novels, but it’s about to be the setting for one of the most gruesome fictional crimes Denmark has ever witnessed.

The fact that we don’t know much about the place is one of the reasons it was chosen as the focal point for a new series of books being put together by Emma Vestrheim and Sarah Surgey. The Scandi-Brit duo are about to self-publish their debut novel, A Presence of Absence.

Emma Vestrheim

“Our protagonist is Simon Weller,” Emma explains. “He’s a British detective who is grieving the loss of his Danish wife, Vibeke. He decides to move to her hometown of Odense and work with the Funen police force, where he’s partnered with the Danish detective Jonas Norgaard.”

While Simon and Jonas set out to solve the terrible crime that has taken place, Simon discovers that it might be linked with his wife’s death and becomes obsessed with catching the killer. With Emma based in Norway and Sarah in England, the two have been collaborating on the plot, generating a suitably grim atmosphere, and writing the novel together since 2015.

It takes two to make a thing go write
“Writing in tandem works for us,” says Sarah. “We have different frames of writing time. I have four daughters, so work sporadically around their timetables, and Emma can plan slightly more in advance when she can write. We have different styles, so that works well for editing each other’s work. I am creative and just write as it comes into my head. It can ramble sometimes, so Emma can rein it in for me.”

Sarah Surgey

Meanwhile, Emma has a background in film, and pictures the scenes as though they’re on screen while she taps away. A Presence of Absence is already being considered for television and a second novel, entitled The Enlightened, is already on the way.

The pair began working together after Sarah approached Emma with a book idea. Emma, originally from Australia, was building up her Cinema Scandinavia project, and Sarah was reviewing Nordic noir books and interviewing authors. They searched for a gap in the market and chose Odense because it is less well known than Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. Another aspect of the story is the family drama they’re writing about, which takes it away from the grittier procedural or psychological approach found in so many other Scandinavian crime books.

Behind the façade
Emma scouted the city out for its potential and chose real-life locations for scenes in the book. Her first impressions are aligned with the impression many of us get when arriving in Denmark: “I found it to be grey, dull, almost lifeless, with much of the centre of town built in brown brick,” she says.

“But there was such charm about the city. Head into a narrow alley between the dull brick buildings and you’ll find cobblestone paths with old, wooden Danish homes lining them. It’s beautiful. It’s also crazy seeing all these tour busses escorting people to the sites, yet the main street itself is almost devoid of life. I knew the place needed more attention.”

The book is being self-published and has relied on crowd funding. Emma and Sarah are busy planning its launch for the middle of March. The final key part of the package is its wonderful cover illustration by Mike Godwin, capturing in fine detail the trees around an old barn, which looks almost like a Viking long house. (Click our main image to see it in greater detail.)

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