This book made its way onto my TBR pile after being highlighted by Maxine at Petrona during the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme that has recently wound up. I’m counting it as my second book in the 2010 Scandinavian Reading Challenge.
Sara Santanda is a female Iranian author who is the subject of a fatwa due to the criticisms she has made of her country. She is in hiding in London but wants to make a public appearance and chooses Copenhagen, Denmark to do so. Lise Carlsen is the arts journalist for the newspaper that has invited Santanda and will be the paper’s main contact for the event. Per Toftlund is the ex-Navy frogman that the secret service puts in charge of security for Santanda’s visit. Vuk is the assassin hired to carry out the contract on Santanda’s life. How these lives intersect is the subject of the book.
The story unfolds in alternating chapters told from the view points of the three main characters though the majority are from either Vuk’s or Lise Carlsen’s perspective. The characterisations are multi-faceted and very engaging, though I found myself a little more compelled by and even empathetic towards Vuk the assassin. Perhaps because we first meet him as he kills a bigoted, hate mongering radio announcer (a sub-species of humanity I believe the world could well do without) but I always retained more sympathy for him than I suspect I was supposed to. The depiction of him as man who could have been a ‘normal’ member of society but who was broken by events largely beyond his control was superbly done. The other two main characters were also well-rounded as we see both their professional and personal lives impacted by events. I must admit thought that I didn’t find Lise Carlsen quite as realistic as the two male characters, particularly in the fairly passive attitude she displays towards the potential breakdown of her marriage.
The other standout feature of the novel for me was its depiction of both international and local politics. The background to Vuk’s part of the story is the war that is still ongoing at the time of the story in the former Yugoslavia between the Croations and the Serbs and, like all wars, it has created its share of living victims. Within Denmark, and this is long before the ‘war on terror’, the politicians are shown to be like politicians pretty much everywhere: self-serving people more intent on preserving trade links and looking important than standing up for anything that remotely resembles a principle.
I will admit here on the blog that my woefully inadequate knowledge of Danish society has pretty much been gained from reading the Australian women’s magazines that populate local hairdressing salons in which there are endless stories of the tribulations of ‘our Mary’ who married their Prince Frederik (who even gets a mention in the book) in 2004. So I’m not sure I’d know the real Denmark if I tripped over it but I feel I did get some sense of the real country here. Denmark was shown as a relatively safe country where the media makes mountains out of whatever molehills they come across because, by and large, things are really pretty good there and the country struggles a bit to project an international image without the benefit of a huge population and/or a nice long history of being strife-torn like all the really cool countries. If this is remotely true then ‘our Mary’ would have felt right at home because that could describe Australia perfectly (though we do a nice line in venomous creatures to single us out a bit).
But I digress.
Rather than a whodunnit The Serbian Dane is a highly compelling ‘will it be done?’ novel. The suspense built in a gradual, quite understated way as the date for Santanda’s visit draws closer and you know that everyone will intersect somehow but are never quite sure how this will happen and what the resolution will be. The flow of the writing appears to have been expertly captured by Scottish born translator Barbara Haveland as the novel was a particularly easy and engaging read and I would recommend it heartily. As someone who tends to bang on a bit about politics in books being done poorly in fiction I’d especially recommend this as a great example of making the politics part of the story instead of a lecture.
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My rating 4/5
Publisher: Arcadia Books [this edition 2007 original edition 1996] ISBN: 1905147120; Length: 267 pages.
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