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Written by Thomas Enger, translated by Kari Dickson — You may already have come across Norwegian author Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series, about a tortured detective torn apart by the death of his son. With Inborn, the author shows us another dimension of his writing – it’s a standalone young adult novel and the newly arrived translation is a great crime read.

The story opens in dramatic fashion. A young musician called Johannes, who has a bit of a swagger about him, is about to lose his life…

Then the scene cuts to a courtroom, where 17-year-old Even is being grilled by the prosecutor about the deaths of Johannes and Mari, who was Even’s ex-girlfriend. She was strangled and then, curiously, someone tried to revive her with CPR, breaking a rib or two. Johannes, however, had his head violently bashed in. It all took place following a concert in the high school, after which Mari was interviewing Johannes for the student newspaper.

Things don’t look good for Even, he had motive and, it turns out, someone claims to have seen him in the school that night – even though he says he was at home brooding over his break-up with Mari. Besides which, this is a Thomas Enger novel and nothing’s going to be that straightforward. In between courtroom scenes and Even’s direct retelling that goes back to the week of the killings, we build up a complex picture of what was going on in this small Norwegian town.

Even’s mother doesn’t come out looking too great. She’s an alcoholic who has pretty much left Even and his younger brother Tobias to raise themselves. The latter locks himself in his room and plays Call of Duty as much as possible. Their uncle Imo has helped to raise them. Soon it becomes clear that Even’s mother has never recovered from the death of the boys’ father in a road accident years before.

Enger’s plotting is razor sharp and he expertly reveals each detail, tantalisingly keeping you guessing about what really happened. Even’s character builds instant sympathy, it seems certain he couldn’t have done it and you’ll be rooting for him throughout even though he makes some dodgy decisions and becomes a bit of a pariah in a town where everyone loved Mari. The lives of the teenagers in the community happen at one level, but gradually things shift to what’s going on with the adults now and what went on in the past.

Every so often, we dip into the police investigation, led by Chief Inspector Yngve Mork. In his 60s, and unused to investigating murders, he is followed everywhere by the ghost of his wife, who passed away from cancer. Mork’s story gives the book another layer, away from the social media frenzy of the teenage element and the picking away at the secrets of the adults. Like Wallander or Beck, Mork takes contemplative moments here and there, breaking the tension and grounding the story, even though a ghost is involved…

Perhaps making Even an under-18 international footballer in addition to playing in a band and being at the centre of a murder investigation was a step too far, and throughout the story he never actually goes training. And I did guess the true culprit very early on. But Inborn is a delightful read, faultlessly translated. True to all good Scandinavian literature, the emotional aspects are handled quietly and honestly. That touch of restraint – a Nordic trait – makes the characters’ hopes and dreams feel a little more poignant and more realistic. There are dozens of occasions when Enger will have you thinking, ‘Yes, that’s what it must be like to be in that situation.’ Plus, it’s a fine mystery with no reliance whatsoever on gore, action or sensational menace.

For an intense coming-of-age crime novel, see Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn.

Orenda Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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