The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul

It seems odd that my second read of the year should be the first review of the year especially as I only finished The Murder of Halland this morning. However I thought I would do a very, very fresh (as I normally take a while to mull a book) review for a bit of a change. In case you were wondering the first book I read this year was Artful by Ali Smith, which I do need to mull and don’t want to share my thoughts on before Hear Read This goes live on Friday. Anyway back to the book in question, The Murder of Halland

Peirene Press, 2012, paperback, fiction, translated by Martin Aitken, 170 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Everyone loves a cold crime don’t they? Yet the more and more that are translated and come over the more and more, bar a few exceptions like Yrsa Sigurdardottir, they seem the same. The Murder of Halland is a cold crime novel but it one with a difference as the murder at the start of the novel is not really the heart of the novel, in fact as we read on Pia Juul lets the murder fade into the background as the reader follow the deceased’s grieving partner after the horrific event – even then Juul gives us something rather different as Bess, the partner of Halland who has recently been shot by person unknown, is a much more complex character than first meets the eye.

To outside eyes, and indeed rather envious ones like Stine, it would appear that Bess has the perfect life. She is a well known author, her partner Halland is also respected and handsome, if a little older, and they seem to have a very comfortable and fulfilled life together. However we join Bess the night before Halland’s death as they are getting ready for bed and we are inside the house where things are normal yet there seems a slight tension in the air. Next thing Halland is dead and unlike in the police dramas, that Halland and Bess so liked to watch, nothing is solved fast and Bess is left confused and grieving, and looking back on her life – it is this which becomes the real story of The Murder of Halland and not the one that makes all the papers.

All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.

As Bess grieves, we soon come to learn that Halland and her were completely in love with one another and yet Bess never felt quite at ease with him. It may have something to do with the fact that she left her husband, Troel who isn’t the nicest of men and soon turns up wanting to see if Bess might fancy sleeping with him in her grieving state, and her daughter Abby after meeting Halland in a bookshop and electricity struck. It may be something to do with the neighbour Brandt. Juul is wonderfully ambiguous even to the very end. Whatever the case they were ‘happy’ but not ‘happy’ all at once.

Indeed after Halland dies one of his relatives, Pernille his sisters foster daughter, suddenly turns up heavily pregnant and wanting to know who will pay the rent of the room on her house Halland was using to stay in and to store things in. This is news to Bess and intriguing to us as we keep trying to solve the crime that Juul has tantalisingly led away from us because what she also really wants to talk about is the effect a murder has on those around it.

It isn’t just the closest of the deceased and the police that are affected, though Juul’s main focus point is Bess obviously, it is also those in the houses and town around the murder that get affected. Some point fingers, some act like it didn’t happen, some gossip, some go mad, some see it as a chance to change or reveal other secrets and Juul writes about this all brilliantly. Her best writing though is without a doubt when she is writing of Bess and her grief but also her confusion. Not just how she felt/feels about Halland and what she did or didn’t know of him but also what her life has meant, the questions of mortality that death often brings. It is deftly and all too realistically done, we don’t all just weep and weep and weep after all.

Halland lay alone in a bare room with a sheet over him. He looked the same and yet he didn’t. I both knew him and didn’t know him. I was his and he was mine, only now we weren’t. We were both alone. I laid my hand gently against his cheek, a gesture I made whenever he seemed in pain and I didn’t have the courage to ask him if anything was wrong.

I found The Murder of Halland a very compelling book. I read it in just two sittings, being one of the Peirene Press novels it is chosen for such a reading. It is part of their ‘small epic’ series and I can see why as for such a slight book it raises so many questions, not always answering them, and somehow encapsulates both a town caught up in a drama and the internal drama of a grieving woman all at once. I wouldn’t say it turns crime fiction on its head, which I read somewhere and was one of the reasons that I decided to finally read it on a random whim, but it is one of the most honest portraits (character study doesn’t seem quite right) of grief I have happened across and all done by a very accomplished writer I feel wish we had more of the translated works of here in the UK. I would definitely like to read more from Pia Juul.

You can see more reviews of The Murder of Halland at Reading Matters here, Winstons Dad blog here, Andrew Blackman’s blog here and David H’s blog here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? Read any of Pia Juul’s other works? Have you read any other ‘cold crime’ works with a very different twist or take on things?

9 Comments

Filed under Peirene Press, Pia Juul, Review

9 responses to “The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul

  1. I think I’ll have to look into the Peirene Press novels. This sounds like something I’d enjoy and I do like a book I can read over to cover in one or two sittings. Are they available in the U.S.?

  2. Glad you got a chance to read it. As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts and reactions to books I am familiar with, as well as ones I haven’t read.This was the first Peirene Press novel I ever read and reviewed.
    http://www.crimefictionlover.com/2012/06/the-murder-of-halland/

  3. Sounds wonderful Simon, very compelling – another one onto the wishlist and I’m off to explore the publisher’s website.

  4. Thanks for linking to my review, Simon; this is one of my favourite Peirene titles. If you liked The Murder of Halland, you might also enjoy Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn – not Scandinavian, but another book that starts with a crime and shades into a character piece. (Here’s what I thought of it, back in the day: http://davidhblog.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/acts-of-violence-2009-by-ryan-david-jahn/)

  5. Many thanks for mention simon I loved the way she twisted the story round so it was almost a post crime novel the out fall of a crime novel

  6. Wow, this sounds great. I love a good crime novel, but like you, of late, I have found everything to read the same.

    I should check this out, and also look at other books by Peirene Press.

  7. Nice review, Simon. It certainly wasn’t the standard crime novel, was it? I loved the way it played with our expectations and deliberately frustrated them, not giving us the neat progress and resolution that many crime novels do. It felt very true to life, and very refreshing.

  8. 1streading

    Thanks for the review – it reminded me why I enjoyed it so much when I read it as part of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize list:
    http://1streading.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/the-murder-of-halland/

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