The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (translated by Martin Aitken)

This is a new one for Messenger’s Booker, it may be Women in Translation Month, however I don’t believe I have ever reviewed a murder mystery. Well actually I know I haven’t reviewed a murder mystery simply because I can’t recall if I’ve ever read one. But is this novel really a whodunit?
From Denmark we have “The Murder of Halland” by Pia Juul, according to the back cover, “one of Denmark’s foremost literary authors. She has published five books of poetry, two short-story collections and two novels.” A poet writing murder mystery’s – is this Denmark’s version of John Banville (aka Benjamin Black)?
Another great short read from Peirene Press (167 pages), our story begins with our first person narrator and protagonist Bess, leaving her partner Halland to go to bed, whilst she writes through the night. She is woken by the front doorbell and a man arresting her “For the murder of her husband”. He claims this as Halland’s last words were “my wife shot me”
In chapter two we have Bess explaining that she isn’t married to Halland, in Chapter three she says “maybe I should set up an auto reply saying my husband has been murdered”. I’m guessing this is like all good murder mysteries, what is the truth, and will we ever find it?
In the past – though now I found the obsession ridiculous, even disturbing – I had likened strangling to a caress but considered shooting as callous. I had wanted to write a story about the difference between them. Now I was unable to fathom my excitement about intimate forms of murder (passion/strangulation) as opposed to calculated, remote forms of murder (callousness/shooting). Murder was murder, I thought, as the figure approached. I was overcome by a feeling of nausea. I imagined hands closing around my throat. Someone was aiming a rifle at me from further up the hill.
Not being a follower of the crime genre I’m probably not the one to comment on that aspect of the novel, however this is a multi-layered story, it explores the question “do we really know the people we’re intimate with?”
“Being there for each other in the proper way is a fine art.” Peter Seeberg, SHEPHERDS
Each chapter begins with a quote, and as the front page reminds us “PS. Don’t skip the quotes”. Without being too revealing they are a subtle reference to the upcoming action, in the case above it precedes a chapter about Bess’s relationship with her mother, her estranged daughter and Halland.
As one of our characters is killed in the opening chapter and the story takes us on a journey through his partner’s grieving, the events leading up to his death, mysterious asides about churchyards or hunters and other “red herrings”, an in depth review about the machinations of this novel is a little hard. Primarily the main theme is relationships, failed ones, doomed ones, mysterious ones, hatred, perceived love, estranged children, partners who may/may not be having affairs, pregnant strangers and reactions to them and a whole lot more.
I’ve never found that the words people said to each other revealed to any great extent what happened between them.
An interesting quote given that it is made up of merely words attempting to reveal a little more about what is happening between our characters. As the Economist review on the back cover says “Anything but a standard crime novel. The mystery at its heart is the mystery we are to each other”. A story which explores, through our tortured protagonist, the shallowness of perceived relationships with her friends and family – are we all players in this game?
I recognized the handwriting. I couldn’t breathe. That’s enough. Secret pregnant nieces, Secret rooms. And what kind of secret was this? Maverick? I know what goes on in Halland’s mind. I fell in love with him, of course I know. I can read his slightest passing thought; I can sense him without touching. I can hear the modulations in his voice when we speak on the phone, and I know exactly what each of them means. Such is true love.
Do we truly know each other? Such is true love!

As per usual there are no spoiler alerts here. Another fine read from Peirene Press, this time their Small Epic Series. Will our author reveal the true nature of relationships along with Halland’s murderer? Hmmm.

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One thought on “The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul (translated by Martin Aitken)

  1. Nice review, Tony. I love the way this book plays with and pushes back against your expectations of a 'murder' narrative. Bess is such an interesting character…one for the re-read pile I think.

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