Despite my irredeemable addiction to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I do not often turn to thrillers or crime fiction for entertainment. But Night School, the next Reacher adventure, is coming out only in September, and since the nights are getting longer, it is nice to have a few good stand-ins in the meantime. Locally, I really enjoyed the recently published Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens: tight plotting, great writing, a scary villainess, and a heroine with balls. It surprised me, and that is a quality I truly appreciate in genre fiction.
I remember picking up Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and realising how it would end just after a hundred pages. For the rest of the book, I had hoped the author would astonish me, but he didn’t. That kind of disappointment is not easily forgiven. But Scandinavian crime and thriller authors have been making huge waves on the international literary scene in the last decade or so. I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and like millions of readers around the world could not get enough of its intriguing main characters, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.
It seems that there is a new kid on the Scandinavian crime block, Samuel Bjørk (pen name of the Norwegian writer and musician Frode Sander Øien). His I’m Travelling Alone is making international headlines, reaching the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel’s number one bestselling spot and selling TV series rights to ITV. It comes with a quote on the cover, warning his compatriot Jo Nesbø to “watch out”. Being unfamiliar with Nesbø’s work, I cannot compare, but judged solely on its own terms, I’m Travelling Alone is a spine-chilling, page-turning novel.
In 2006, a baby disappears from the maternity unit of Ringerike Hospital in Hønefoss in the south of Norway. Half a dozen years later, a six-year-old girl is found dead hanging from a tree. Dressed like a doll with an airline tag which reads “I’m travelling alone” around her neck, the girl is soon believed to be the first victim of a serial killer about to strike again. A race against time begins. Holger Munch is put in charge of finding and bringing the killer to justice. Despite, or precisely because of, being the typical middle-aged, overweight, chain-smoking, sadly divorced, veteran police investigator, Holger is instantly endearing. As is his partner, the deeply disturbed but fascinating, thirty-something Mia Krüger.
In the beginning of the book, Mia is living in complete solitude on an island, drugged and drunk, mourning her beloved sister and awaiting her own death. It takes some persuading from Holger to sway her to postpone her suicide in order to help him solve the case. They both have a troubled past to atone for, and have no clue how it is about to surface to haunt them.
The next girl is found murdered and two more go missing. But then the ruthless killer changes his (or her? the police are uncertain) MO and contacts a journalist writing for a daily, placing him and his editorial team in front of an impossible choice: Who dies next? And when Mia and Holger discover that the next intended victim is someone they both know and care about, the urgency to track down the perpetrator intensifies unbearably. The hunt leads them to a mysterious sect and an old-age home where Holger’s mother lives. What at first seems a dead end reveals itself as a deadly possibility. And the murderer is always a step ahead.
The two investigators, the police squad, and family and friends around them are all well-drawn characters one takes immediate interest in and liking to. They propel the story forward. Additionally, to a certain extent, I’m Travelling Alone felt like armchair travel. I have a very soft spot for Norway, having travelled the country, loved its landscape, read some of its brilliant classics, and made a few Norwegian friends for life. I actually visited some of the places mentioned in the novel, have experienced the weather and tasted the food. Reading all the everyday details of the characters’ lives has brought back many great memories. I couldn’t resist and had some herring again while reading.
I was spellbound almost to the end. However, the last twenty pages let me down. To be honest, I am not sure that I understood how all the puzzle pieces of the story fit together or whether the author managed to tie up all the loose ends, yet it somehow did not matter. I found the ride as far as the last four or five chapters exhilarating and the strangely abrupt ending did not spoil the fun. I sincerely hope that Mia and Holger will return and I look forward to the next Samuel Bjørk crime novel with great anticipation.
Review first published in the Cape Times, 4 March 2016.
I’m Travelling Alone
by Samuel Bjørk