Sunday, January 23, 2011

Copenhagen in the Dark

I like to think of crime fiction as resembling adult fairy tales that address common fears, so I enjoy reading non-U.S. crime fiction to get a feel for what worries people in other places. Two of Norwegian writer Karin Fossum’s Sejer novels, for example, look a lot at the violence that lurks behind pleasant-looking facades and faces. (previous post)

If I were to use my criteria to analyze Copenhagen Noir, an anthology edited by Bo Tao Michaëlis, translated mostly by Mark Kline, and published by Akashic Books, I might come away a little afraid of Danes and Denmark, where my ancestors moved after they left Sweden… Copenhagen Noir left me with the overwhelming feeling that Danes, at least Danish writers, are most concerned about misdeeds related to sex, often prostitution, and crime involving immigrants. These two categories often overlap, and many stories mention these topics in passing even if they focus on other subjects.

Before I discuss stories in the book, I want to tell you the reason I asked Akashic for a review copy of Copenhagen Noir: I visited Copenhagen twice in the early ‘90s and felt, both times, a strange and indescribable something dark about the city. It was more than just the aimless-looking teenage guys wandering Tivoli Garden in pods – I find theme parks a little creepy anyway – or the young man next to me on a train who lit up a glob of some sort of goop that looked like an opiate. None of this made the Danish pastries taste less airily sweet or the fish taste less saltily fresh, but I sensed something deeper than a routine melancholy.

[Beware: Mild spoilers may follow.] Almost 20 years later, there’s Copenhagen Noir, where many of the descriptions are as minimalist as the details in Scandinavian design: that’s fitting given Michaëlis’s mention in his introduction of “the seamy side of modernism.” Michaëlis also writes: “All the short stories in Copenhagen Noir are about meaninglessness, violence, and murder in various districts of the city.” I especially related to the meaningless he mentions: For example, “The Booster Station,” by Seyit Öztürk, involves two guys who find a body and then wait for the murderer to return to the scene of the crime. They wait, eat sometimes, and talk. I had my suspicions about who might have done “it” (this crime also involved sex), and things get increasingly tense. These guys might have been at Tivoli that night.

The first five stories in the book are grouped in a “(Men and) Women” section; some depict sex-related crimes rather graphically, but Christian Dorph and Simon Pasternak’s, “Australia,” about an immigrant prostitute trying to escape, has something approaching a happy ending. Bonus: it also mentions hockey. I enjoyed Gretelise Holm’s “When It’s Tough out There” more: a well-to-do woman with an original Arne Jacobsen Egg chair and a Philippine au pair decides to join up as a worker at City Sex and Luxury Massage. Even if the victim doesn’t deserve the final punishment and I guessed the ending, the story felt satisfying as twisted social satire.

Savage City, Cruel City,” by Kristian Lundberg, translated from the Swedish by Lone Thygesen Blecher is about Malmo, a Swedish city across a bridge from Copenhagen. Though the story, which involves a hardboiled cop, wandered, I welcomed its metaphysical side after some of the book’s very spare stories. This paragraph felt especially fitting as I watched the snow fall: “Now it’s January. The month when everything stands in the balance. When everything is both too late and too early.”

Two others stories stood out: Kristina Stoltz’s “The Elephant’s Tusks,” which starts off with writers celebrating and ends with something very strange, and Benn Q. Holm’s “The Great Actor,” about two actors, one famous, the other a cab driver, who meet by chance after many years. I enjoyed the homey voice of the cab driver: Holm creates a nice balance between concision and chattiness. I wish I’d said this first: “I had become a night person, and I liked winters, the long dense dark. Autumn was my spring, the sublime overture of darkness.”

Though Copenhagen Noir doesn’t achieve the body-and-soul-rending reading experience of Moscow Noir (post on my Russian book blog), its stories melded together for me into an uneasy Copenhagen populated by sex traffickers, willing and hesitant murderers, and kind people. And it’s successful at drawing a city that feels like a city instead of a tourist attraction: Copenhagen Noir’s writers generally avoid gratuitous mentions of recognizable tourist spots. And I think there’s only one mention of that Scandinavian classic called Ikea. Even if I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about Copenhagen Noir as I was about Moscow Noir, I was grateful for the chance to read fiction about my historical homeland, particularly since it’s fiction that addresses, if only indirectly, the impressions I had of Copenhagen when I visited year ago. I’m looking forward to more of Akashic’s Noir books about places outside the U.S.

My favorite Copenhagen tourist spot: Rosenborg Castle. Photo from Bluedog423, via Wikipedia.

Up Next: Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Copenhagen Noir from publisher Akashic Books. Thank you!


  1. I gravitate quite a bit to crime stories set in foreign (to me) locales - and something about Europe draws me into it all even more so. And to be honest, a crime novel set in the snowy cold regions of it is an immediate grab. I've download a sample onto my Nook Color of this book so I look forward to reading it and being a bit afraid... (I'm also checking out Moscow Noir as well). Thanks for putting this on the radar.

  2. Coffee and a Book Chick, there are good stories in both books but I'd definitely recommend Moscow Noir more than Copenhagen Noir. Of course my Russian fiction bias may be responsible for that!

  3. I just downloaded Moscow Noir. I can't wait to read it!

  4. I hope you enjoy it, Coffee and a Book Chick! There are some very good stories in Moscow Noir!