The Murder of Halland: Pia Juul

To describe Danish author’s Pia Juul’s novel, The Murder of Halland as crime fiction would not only be inaccurate, but would also potentially disappoint any readers, so instead I’ll say the book is about a woman whose life is instantly changed when crime takes place. The novel opens with Bess, the slippery narrator, describing the last night spent with her much older partner, Halland. She stays up to write while Halland goes to bed, and then she falls asleep on the sofa.

When I opened my eyes again, I knew a sound had woken me, but I had no idea what sound. An echo reverberated inside me. I sat up and ran my fingers through my hair the way they do in films. I pulled myself together again and clutched the blanket around my knees. Was I afraid? I don’t think so. That would have been psychic, insane almost. Though I remember thinking something wasn’t quite right. Had I merely heard the door closing behind Halland?

I’m not giving away spoilers to say that Halland has been murdered–shot to death by an unidentified killer. In the confusion immediately following the crime, Bess finds herself accused of murder, and the fact that as Halland lay dying he apparently says “my wife shot me,” doesn’t help. But Bess is quickly eliminated as a suspect, and while the investigation continues almost silently in the background, Bess finds herself immersed in questions and regrets about her past.

The murder of hallandThe narrative constructed by Bess defies genre conventions, so while the investigation occasionally rolls up to Bess’s front door, she does not follow its progress. It’s not so much that she’s disinterested (although it would be easy to come to this conclusion) as much as she’s distracted.

Gazing at me with pity, the policeman spoke, but I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t grasp that they wanted an explanation. The thought that I was somehow involved didn’t occur to me. I didn’t realize that they were trying to find out whether I could have shot Halland. They didn’t actually say so much, so I’m just guessing. But obviously they were waiting for me to say something. What I eventually said was, ‘Can I see him again?’

I could, but later.

There are a couple of references to life as we see it in films; at one point, for example, Bess says that Halland had no enemies, and that “enemies only existed in film.” If this were a film, following genre expectations, Bess would become the plucky investigator, but here, after Halland’s death, events have an almost surreal quality for Bess–this isn’t shown in the author’s style as much as Bess’s disconnectedness. This can’t be happening to her; these things don’t happen to ordinary people who lead ordinary lives.

There’s something I haven’t mentioned. Actually, there’s a great deal I haven’t mentioned. How could I possibly include everything? Nonetheless, there is something I haven’t mentioned which I must have left out on purpose. I wonder, too, if my claim that my mind ran on two parallel tracks proved a poor excuse. Doesn’t that apply to everyone? Doesn’t everyone look back with bewilderment on what they’ve said and done? Awful things happen, and afterwards you shake your head and would so much like to know why you did one thing rather than another.

While Bess could be thinking about who murdered Halland, instead she finds herself obsessing about her daughter, Abby, a child she abandoned when she left her husband, Troels, ten years earlier and moved in with Halland.

I had led a good life with Abby and her father. A normal, everyday life full of joy, sex, laughter, boredom, drudgery, acrimony and minor arguments. My husband took a sabbatical from his teaching job to go to some courses. He travelled a lot that year. I met Halland. If the five-minute encounter in a bookshop could have been avoided, everything would have worked out differently.

It’s clear from the narrative that Halland is/was famous, but this is never explored–as if Bess expects us to know the facts. We also begin to gather the idea that Bess’s relationship with Halland has turned out to be a disappointment. A year into the new relationship, Halland became ill, and Bess and Halland never quite gelled as a couple.

In the middle of this crisis, three people emerge on the scene: Bess’s daughter Abby arrives from England with ten years of resentments, Bess’s ex shows up wanting to renew their relationship,  but the most unexpected arrival is Pernille, a young woman claiming to be Halland’s niece. There’s also no small amount of guilt launched long-distance at Bess by her mother. So eventually we see Bess sandwiched between two resentful generations and we can extend that to a dying grandfather who “had shunned” her ten years earlier after she left Troels. As the story progresses, while Halland’s murder is always in the background, the lid peels back on Bess’s troubled relationships. Life with Halland, although it began with passion, ended with a whimper.

Reading a blurb of the book, I expected crime fiction, but The Murder of Halland is something quite different. I found myself with genre expectations willing the novel to move in another direction. I had to wrestle with, and overcome, these genre expectations–a strange sensation which makes one question the well-worn furrows books fall into. While a crime occurs, the plot concentrates, not on detection, but on the post-crime meltdown of a woman’s life–a meditation of choices made and regrets endured.

Review copy. Translated by Martin Aitken

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Juul Pia

19 responses to “The Murder of Halland: Pia Juul

  1. I really enjoyed this novella when I read it a couple of years, particularly the way it subverted my expectations as a reader. Bess is a bit of a puzzle, isn’t she.

  2. Interesting. Is there a reason he is murdered? Would the story not have worked given the lack of focus on the crime if he’d just had a heart attack?

  3. I’d be giving a lot away to answer that Max. If he’d had a heart attack, there would have been a difference.

  4. I like the sound of this. Bess sounds like the most unreliable of narrators, for various reasons.

  5. A very intriguing review.You’ve inspired me to reserve this at my library.

  6. I actually had to review this for a crime fiction site – one of the first reviews I did – and I too felt that crime fans would have false expectations and be disappointed. As a literary mystery and unreliable narrator, and as a portrayal of grief and loss, it is excellent however.

  7. Despite your diffidence, I’m very intrigued by the unreliable narrator and disintegration! Thanks for a great and fair review

  8. Tom Cunliffe

    Just my sort of book. I’ve read more than a couple of Danish books over the last year and love the atmosphere.

    Sorry for not visiting for a year or so. I’m afraid other things took over for a while and I needed a break after 8 years of blogging (others carry on longer without stopping I know!).

  9. I’ve had this on my radar for quite while. I didn’t think it was a crime novel. Is yours not one of the Pereine titles? The cover looks different. Maybe the US edition? Pereine doesn’t publish crime, so I suppose the US editor, didn’t make it as clear.

  10. i should have tried this one when I wanted to read Danish fiction.

    It’s an interesting idea to focus on what a crime does to the persons who are close to the victim.

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