Oskar Jensen’s Helle & Death is an ingenious mystery that embraces several beloved tropes from the Golden Age of Murder – the country house murder, the locked room mystery and the closed circle of suspects – but brings them firmly into the 21st century with a twist of Nordic noir.
Torben Helle – pronounced ‘Hell-uh’ – is a ruggedly handsome and self-consciously self-depreciating Danish art historian who has been living in London since finishing university. Now he’s travelling to the stately Bastle House in remote Northumberland to attend an informal 10-year reunion with a bunch of chums from his Oxford days.
The gathering has been arranged by Anthony Dodd, generally considered the most successful of the group, who has made a fortune in tech, although he has been living as a near recluse for the last while. Despite the enforced closeness that their university accommodation allocation brought about, the group haven’t been together as a whole since graduation.
Once he arrives at Bastle House and is reunited with his seven old friends, only a couple of whom he has actually sought to keep in touch with, Torben is surprised by just how easily and quickly they all slip into old behaviour patterns. This includes Anthony’s propensity for the dramatic: he announces over dinner that he has a terminal illness and, with not long left, intends to leave each of his guests £50,000.
After the shock of Anthony’s announcement dissipates the booze starts flowing and Torben in particular starts making merry, both disconcerted and strangely satisfied to be back in the university atmosphere. When the next morning arrives a stonking hangover with it, he’s in no fit state to react appropriately to the screams coming from down the hall.
He soon discovers that, having been unable to rouse Anthony, a couple of the others broke down his door and discovered him dead in bed. Noting that Anthony has been shot in the head and spotting both a gun and a suicide note nearby, fellow guest and off-duty police officer Ruth determines that he committed suicide. However, despite his addled state, Torben is convinced that the death is a cleverly staged murder.
As heavy overnight snowfall has left Bastle House cut off from the rest of the world and without access to power or the internet, Torben and his friends, as well as the unfortunate housekeeper Kirsty, the only person present who wasn’t part of their university gang, have to decide what to do with Anthony’s body and how to cope with the fact that they are likely trapped with a killer.
The arrival of the unpassable snow renders the now isolated Bastle House an environment unto itself, one that could be equally encountered in Northumberland or Scandinavia, so it’s lucky that Torben has brought a collection of stylish Nordic jumpers with him. Both the cold and the isolation enhance the slow-building atmosphere of dread and sense of unexpected danger that characterise the initially cosy Helle & Death.
These characteristics also render it a closed circle mystery where all the suspects are known to the amateur sleuth, which should make it easier to uncover the murderer. In Torben’s case, he prides himself on his keen observational skills and ability to read people, although that pride may well be setting him up for a fall. Aside from being distracted by his hangover and his unresolved romantic feelings for Leyla Moradi, it’s also possible that he might be a bit carried away by his love of classic detective fiction and the insights into the criminal mind he supposes it has given him.
Oskar Jensen also has a clear love of the Golden Age sleuths, but he never gets distracted by it. Instead, he peppers Helle & Death with Easter eggs and allusions to the works of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, et al., whose books are scattered throughout Bastle House. This makes the already intriguing and intricately plotted story a particular treat for fans of classic crime, although it’s questionable whether related knowledge will help crack the case before Torben does so.
Bringing the country house mystery into the 21st century and having it involve both locked room and closed circle elements is tricky, given the pervasiveness and capabilities of modern technologies, but Jensen makes it all seem very plausible. Sure, it’s more likely that inclement weather would bring down the communication network than a tech entrepreneur suddenly deciding mobile phones are emitting deadly waves and so confiscating them from his guests, but it doesn’t seem outlandish when viewed through Torben’s eyes.
In fact, being a Dane who still considers himself something of an outsider among the English and who hasn’t quite mastered the complexities of English culture and language, Torben sees things differently from his fellow amateur sleuths, principally Ruth and Leyla, although once again his ego might be influencing his outsider perspectives. Still, his misunderstandings and miscommunications are often very funny, serving to lighten the mood of the story at opportune times.
Helle & Death takes many unexpected turns, exploring the complex motivations behind the characters’ actions and the lingering shadows of their pasts. Jensen cleverly incorporates aspects of the Golden Age, paying homage to classic detective stories while introducing fresh ideas and unique characters. This ability to balance traditional elements with innovative storytelling renders Helle & Death a compelling and engaging mystery with a truly disorientating dénouement.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
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