The Nina Borg mysteries are rooted in relationships, beginning with this first volume in the series.

There are crimes, yes. And the plot unfolds in matter-of-fact prose, which is designed to build tension and suspense.

Boy Suitcase

2008; Trans. Lena Kaaberbøl
Soho Press, 2010

But ulitmately these stories are about the methodical assemby of truths which are rooted in interpersonal connections.

This approach could make for a story which proceeds at a slow-boil, but Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis constuct their story scenically.

Quick shifts from one character to the next afford a momentum to the story which allows for the connections to be revealed in a controlled manner.

This requires patience on the reader’s part, as each perspective is introduced without explanation, the connections assembling gradually.

And, yet, this adds to the credibility of the story, for as motivations are uncovered, they are immediately recognizable, raw human responses.

If you hurt my boy, I will kill you. Does an act have to be conceived in the mind before it can happen? And once one had thought of it, did that bring it closer to reality? She had thought it. And now she had done it. The calm she had felt seemed very distant now.”

(Note: the excerpts are presented in a deliberately disordered fashion to avoid spoilers, so that readers can get a taste of the story’s tone, without brushing against plot developments and truths exposed via characterization.)

“Something happened when they looked at each other. A silent agreement. Not a trade-off, more a sort of covenant.”

Even the characters who seem compelled by darkness are motivated by forces readers can understand. And even the main characters, including Nina Borg, struggle with elements of darkness.

“She didn’t want the child to be afraid of her. She didn’t like that he looked at her as if she might be a monster little different from the man in the railway station, but she had no idea how to win his trust.”

Nina is a nurse, who volunteers with a network of people who assist people in crisis, who cannot access the traditional avenues of service in society, often women and children, often marginalised individuals. She has a husband and two children, and frequently their needs are set aside while Nina assists other families in need.

Nina as wife and mother appears on the pages of The Boy in the Suitcase, but it is Nina as rescue-worker whose actions drive the story’s events.

The tension builds subtly at times. Sometimes in small actions. (“Click, click, click. The point of his ballpen appeared and disappeared, appeared and disappeared.”) Sometimes in metaphor, more obviously.  (“He wondered if they were watching him. The taxi slid through the midnight traffic like a shark through a herring shoal, and he couldn’t tell whether any specific car stayed behind them.”)

And, at times, the tension is overt. “It was then she heard the scream. A shrill heart-rending note of terror, like the scream you hear in the night when a hare is caught by a fox.”

Underpinning the story, another sort of tension lurks. The theme of social justice adds another element of complexity to the storytelling and Nina’s compassion for the disenfranchised stands in opposition to her erratic parenting.

“No one has asked the refugees, the prostitutes, the fortune hunters, and the orphans to come knocking on Denmark’s door. No one has invited them, and no one knew how many there were. Crimes committed against them had nothing to do with ordinary people and the usual workings of law and order. It was only dimwit fools like Nina who were unable to achieve the proper sense of detachment.”

The question of class and entitlement lurks beneath each of the series’ volumes. A ‘right’ for one person is a ‘privilege’ for another and a ‘dream’ for another.

“People like you, Mr. Marquart. People like you don’t need to kill anyone themselves. After all, it’s so much easier to pay someone else to do it.”

These are major issues, and if readers suspect that there will be no tidy resolution, they are correct.

“But you don’t see all that many happy endings, do you? a small cynical voice commented inside her. Nothing ever really comes out the way you want to.”

Despite that cynical voice, however, the ending of The Boy in the Suitcase manages to be both realistic and satisfying.

[If you don’t believe me, The Next Chapter’s mystery panel also recommended it in their winter 2012 discussion panel: podcast here.]

Tomorrow, talk of the second volume, Invisible Murder.

How about you: have you read this series?