Comparisons to Jo Nesbo and Steig Larsson are somewhat unhelpful here: this isn’t a speed-reading spoon-fed page-turner to be read in a frenzy of tension. It has more in common with the works of writers like Leif Persson, Karin Fossum, Henning Mankell and Gunnar Staalesen. There is almost as much to be gleaned in the gaps between the words, as in the text itself…
Jon Michelet is another award-winning Scandinavian author whose books, mysteriously, are seldom translated into English. He’s been writing since 1975 but this was my first encounter with his work. The Frozen Woman is part of a series featuring the slightly shady lawyer, Vilhelm Thygesen, but it mattered not a jot that I was meeting him for the first time. In fact, he’s almost a bystander to this story; a tangential character whose involvement in the murder investigation is (perhaps…) peripheral. The story focuses instead on the main players: two Olso Kripos detectives; a thoughtful male and a caustic female, and the members of a biker gang whose loose ties of loyalty are fraying under strain. The first body in the snow, a foreign-looking young woman, is unlikely to be the last one.
Michelet does not disguise the guilty parties, nor does he compress events into an unlikely time frame to force the pace. Instead he scatters fragments of ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ into a narrative which touches on blackmail, drug smuggling, prostitution, trafficking, fungal tree diseases, the construction of escapist online identities, and the development of an unlikely relationship between two initially hostile parties. It’s all delivered with a subtle touch which frequently leaves the reader to draw the necessary conclusion. In short, this is thoughtful writing which demands a little input from its audience. The rewards are commensurately high.
On the downside, the motorcycle sequences felt a bit artificial – as an experienced rider I wasn’t entirely convinced by them. But that’s a common complaint of mine when authors use motorbikes as plot devices.
While it was written quite a while ago (around 2001, I believe), The Frozen Woman doesn’t feel outdated. It simply evokes a sense of Norwegian society – almost timeless in itself; subject to the political and social upheavals of the modern world but somehow… distant from them.
But that doesn’t mean it’s wrapped up in an unreal world of cosy cotton wool, so don’t come here looking for hugge (and that’s Danish, anyway). As with the best Scandi crime, The Frozen Woman doesn’t simply deliver a murder-mystery police procedural. It also comments on population migration, the upheavals in post-Soviet eastern Europe and the knock-on effect in Sweden and Norway; even the consequences for Scandinavian forests with increasing globalisation and corporate machinations. Scratch the surface is this intriguing mystery and you soon discover some thought-provoking arguments about environmental protection and human exploitation.
The translation is clean and extremely readable – it flows easily in English yet retains a clear sense of the typically Norwegian, phlegmatic nature of these pragmatic people.
Occasionally oblique, understated and always intelligent, The Frozen Woman introduced a new Norwegian author to my ‘must read’ list. I’m already looking forward to the translation of the next one.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Frozen Woman by Jon Michelet is available as an ebook, hardback or paperback