Review: Burned by Thomas Enger

On his first day back at work after nearly 2 years’ absence Henning Juul, a reporter for an online news outlet, is immediately thrown into a major investigation. A young female film student has been found (by the ubiquitous dog walker) stoned to death inside a tent in an Oslo public park. Due to the manner of death and the specific body mutilations, and the fact the girl’s boyfriend is Muslim, the official investigation is quick to focus on a possible religious angle to the crime but Henning feels there is more at play. However he’s not even sure he can function as a journalist after so long out of the game, and takes a while to find his feet.

There was much to like about this book though, for me, the plot was a bit of a let down. Starting with the positives though the characters are all first rate; even the ones I hated were entirely believable and well drawn. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Juul is a damaged man, both physically and psychologically, since losing his young son Jonas in a house fire two years previously. The guilt, the obsessive changing of smoke alarm batteries, the disconnection from the people around him, the desperation to find something ‘normal’ to cling on to, all help to build up a very credible picture of Henning Juul. What I liked most is that he is not an entirely sympathetic character and I suspect this must have been harder to tease out than someone who engenders nothing but compassion in the reader.

The character I particularly despised was Detective Inspector Bjarne Brogleand who is one of the two police investigators on the case and he spends his every waking moment fantasizing about his partner, a female cop. The language he uses in his thoughts is crude and disgusting and the thoughts themselves made me angry more than once but it is a realistic depiction of the kind of man who sees women as nothing more than sexual objects. Credible though he undoubtedly is I’m really not going to line up to spend any more time in his repugnant company.

The story started well, incorporating its gruesome but not gratuitous opening scene into a broader narrative that seemed to be heading in an interesting direction. It also gave a great depiction of modern journalism where online news has an insatiable need for new content to the point that veracity and accuracy are less important than having something new a few minutes before the competitors have it. The discussion of the disparity between what people say they want to read and what online outlets know (from click-through data) people actually read was particularly poignant given recent events in the UK media. But about half-way through the book I really did lose interest in what I found to be an increasingly disjointed and, at times, downright nonsensical, plot. I can’t say too much without giving spoilers but there was quite a bit that didn’t ring true for me. Things like Juul having a highly placed ‘Deep Throat’ style informant (who never slept and knew absolutely everything going on in official circles) and the triple-twist to the crime’s resolution just felt a bit too contrived for me. In the end it felt like a few too many ideas had been thrown in at the last minute and one or two could have been saved for a future outing. I did like the loose-end feel to the story though (which is not one for those obsessed with justice being done).

I didn’t deliberately pluck this book from my TBR pile in light of recent events in Norway but once I had decided to read it I hoped it might shed some light on its setting. In that I was for the most part disappointed, though perhaps learning that Norwegian society is very similar to my own is the lesson I’m meant to learn from my global reading. Overall I thought this a solid debut novel, particularly with respect to its characters, with a nicely unnoticeable translation by Charlotte Barslund (I tend only to think about translations when the language doesn’t feel right and that never happened here). The plotting will need to improve though for the series to deliver on the promise it shows here.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Burned is Thomas Enger’s first crime novel and it has been reviewed at Nordic Bookblog

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Translator Charlotte Barslund
Publisher Faber and Faber [2011]
ISBN 9780571275175
Length 399 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Henning Juul series
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in book review, Nordic Challenge 2011, Norway, Thomas Enger. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Review: Burned by Thomas Enger

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – Thanks for this well-written and thoughtful review. I’m sorry to hear that the plot didn’t stay strong for you although the characters really sound as though they ring true. And I am interesting in the journalism angle. I don’t have a background in that field myself, but I like stories that give us a look at the way the media covers murders (and the way readers and viewers want those stories)…


  2. Maxine says:

    I haven’t read your review as I shall be reading this book over the next few weeks, but have bookmarked it for post-book reading!


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  5. Maxine says:

    I’ve read it now – really liked it. A bit more than you I think, though I found a few flaws I overwhelmingly liked it (esp the journalism and the character of henning).


  6. I did like those aspects too Maxine but wish the book had stayed with those strong elements instead of descending into a bit of what I call Hollywood silliness with the implausible ending. I’ll definitely be reading the next one though


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