Tag Archives: human trafficking

The Lake: Lotte and Søren Hammer

The Lake is the fourth novel in the Konrad Simonsen series from brother and sister writing team Lotte and Søren Hammer. Other titles in the series are: The Hanging, The Girl in the Ice and The Vanished. The Lake is the first title I read, and while some of the characters have established relationships, with minor references made to past cases, the book was easy to read without having finished the prior books in the series.

Crime readers are aware that the genre has many sub-categories. In the case of The Lake, which I had expected to be a straightforward police procedural, the narrative, taking a hard, cold look at the layers involved in human trafficking, is more complex. This is definitely a crime novel written to highlight a social ill–one that occurs under the noses of polite society. In Denmark, prostitution is legal, but after that things get a bit blurry. It’s illegal to pimp, run a brothel, or rent out a room that is used for prostitution.  Wikipedia states that approx. 65% of sex workers in Denmark are migrants/victims of human trafficking (other sources are higher), and it seems seriously doubtful that any of them, signed up for the kind of life they ended up with.

The Lake

The Lake begins with a young Nigerian sex worker being driven off to a remote location to be ‘punished’. Henrik Krag, Jan Podowski and Benedikte Lerche-Larsen are all unhappy with “Jessica,” a teenage girl who “lies there like a dead thing,” and as a result unhappy customers have demanded refunds. Jessica isn’t her real name, of course, “all the girls in her shipment had been given names that began with the letter ‘J’ –it was easier that way.” Henrik and Jan aren’t exactly ‘nice’ people, but somehow, Benedikte, born with all of her privileges, being groomed to take over the family business, finds torture of this sad, confused, frightened, disenfranchised girl amusing. Benedikte is the worst of the lot.

“Yes, I’m talking about you, sister. We’ve gone to the trouble of having you shipped all the way to civilisation, and now suddenly you can’t be bothered to keep your half of the bargain. But I’m not going to let you screw over my family, and I can guarantee that very soon you’ll find that out for yourself.”

The punishment goes wrong, the girl dies and she’s dumped into a remote lake. Months later her body surfaces, and a policeman interviewed on television made a racist remark. Suddenly the girl’s death garners attention. The murder becomes a cause célèbre, and DS Konrad Simonsen and his team are soon on the case…

The murder takes the police to Kollelse Manor and the noble Blixen-Agerskjold family. The estate bailiff, Frode Otto, with his criminal past, comes to the detectives’ attention. Could he be involved? Personal relationships between the police team are highlighted while the criminals here run the gamut: from the lowly, manipulated thug, to the cold masterminds running the show.

This isn’t a novel that you race through, but it is solid, engaging and thoughtful in its portrayals of the different aspects of prostitution with the criminals creaming off the money in this ugly trade in human flesh. Benedikte’s mother, Katrina, is in the market for some new women, and she has three women to trade back for the newer models. The ones she returns like cashing in a coupon are  “barely used as good as new.”  Here she is looking at “applicants” along with a doctor on hand to give them the once over.

All the women were trying to appear sexy and eager to work to the older, blonde woman sitting at the opposite end of the room, scrutinising them. Rumours had long since spread among them: if Katrina Larsen owned you, you would only have to service one client a day. It sounded incredible but it was the truth. And what luxury it would be–just one customer a day! In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

The Lake addresses Denmark’s seemingly open-minded approach to prostitution–a trade in which legal residents, in theory, pay taxes, and are much more likely to approach the police if they are threatened or beaten. Foreign sex workers, however, are much more vulnerable. Denmark is rated as a Tier I country when it comes to Human Trafficking. That means “Countries whose governments fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards.” It’s both a country of destination and of transit. “The Triangle of Shame” is mentioned here: Niger, Chad and Nigeria–three countries from which “many, many thousands of sex slaves exported to Europe each year.”

review copy

translated by Charlotte Barslund

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Filed under Fiction, Hammer Lotte and Søren

Behind Closed Doors: Elizabeth Haynes

Behind Closed Doors from British author Elizabeth Haynes takes a look at the fallout of a crime that occurred ten years earlier. Fifteen year old Scarlett Rainsford was on holiday in Greece with her thirteen year old sister, Juliette and her parents when she disappeared. DCI Louisa (Lou) Smith, ten years before back in 2003, early in her career, was one part of the team investigating the girl’s disappearance, and at the time there was a theory–never proved–that Scarlett’s parents were somehow involved in her disappearance. The strange family dynamic and the father’s bizarre behaviour led the police to think that perhaps the parents had killed Scarlett, so initially the search was for a body. Lou had “always expected to hear” about Scarlett again one day, but it’s an unsolved case that rankled even after all these years. Here’s Lou discussing the case:

“Didn’t feel right. I know that’s easy to say with hindsight. The family was odd–Scarlett’s sister was monosyllabic, hostile at first; the father was polite, helpful as far as it went. When the mother came back she was in a bad state emotionally.” “What happened with the Greeks?” “It was pretty chaotic. One minute they wanted our help, the next they didn’t. They told us some bits and left out other important things. They thought straight away that she had been killed and disposed of. Somehow the investigators who went out there got the impression that had evidence that she’d been killed, some forensics–but there was nothing like that. For a couple of days we were looking for a body when we should have been checking the ports.” “To be honest, we all thought it was the Dad.”

Now ten years later, the Rainsford family (and their sole daughter) are on holiday once again–Spain this time–when they are given the news that Scarlett has been found working in a brothel in their hometown of Briarstone. Lou discovers that Scarlett, who obviously in hindsight wasn’t murdered, wasn’t a runaway either. As a 15-year-old troubled teen, she was very vulnerable and fell for a local Greek boy, but when a secret meeting failed to take place, Scarlett was smuggled out of the country by human traffickers. Behind closed doorsElizabeth Haynes’s crime novel moves through three narrative voices moving backwards and forwards in time with Scarlett’s terrible story unfolding and alternating with the current investigation. The murder case from Under a Silent Moon (the first in the Briarstone series) is mentioned frequently–along with various characters from the first novel, so there’s some back story here that readers should be aware of. Scarlett’s horrific story is gripping, and so gripping that this works against the novel when chapters flip from Scarlett to the chapters narrated by Lou and Sam. Maintaining momentum through multiple narrative voices is a challenge which is not met here. There was too much fluff with Lou’s love life and the inserted reports were distracting. Nothing could match Scarlett’s story for readability. In the creation of Scarlett, the author shows impressive depth for not only does she tackle a very real social problem, but she faces prostitution head-on in all of its ugliness–even addressing the red-light district of Amsterdam where prostitution is legal.

Did they genuinely think she was here through choice? That she would choose to sit in a window in her underwear, on display, waiting for the next ugly, filthy, sexually inadequate bastard to come and use her body? Why did none of them ever stop to think about it, about the hideousness of it all, of what they were doing? How could this ever ever be right?

But here’s what she has been told to tell customers:

“I came here because I always wanted to do this,” she recited, trying to keep her voice light, knowing it sounded flat. “I always wanted to make people happy. You see, I have an insanely high sex drive. I need to fuck guys all the time or else I feel sad. So this is the perfect job for me.”

It’s with the character of Scarlett that Elizabeth Haynes takes some bold chances and succeeds in examining the deeper psychological aspects behind the case. Here’s a now 25 year old woman who was kidnapped and sold into a life of prostitution at age 15.  At one point, Scarlett is being interviewed by the police and they seem amazed that she doesn’t know more about the men who moved her around Europe or the apartments she was kept in. By alternating the investigation with Scarlett’s story, we see how the police fail to grasp the abysmal conditions and imprisonment Scarlett has endured along with the inevitable crushing of any hope of escape that she may have tried to hold onto. At one point, Scarlett says she was told she was in a specific country but she really doesn’t know that for certain–after all she only sees four walls and the sweaty bodies of men on top of her. We accept her story while the police are skeptical. At another point, she describes how a girl being trafficked was shot in the head–one of the investigators wonders if Scarlett may be making this up and even questions if her tears are real. And this brings me to the crucial part of the story–at some point Scarlett moved from being a victim to being seen as thoroughly corrupted and part of the criminal problem. She is as objectified by the establishment as she is by the pimps and the johns. Because she is 25 when she’s found in a brothel in Briarstone, the police don’t understand why she doesn’t run away, but that’s the whole point. After ten years of this life, where do you run to? Who wants you? A young, innocent girl is stolen from home, but that young girl–while maintaining a strong character–has become an incredibly cynical human being who will probably never be able to trust anyone or have a normal sexual relationship again.

Stories have hit the news about real-life victims found after years locked up by some sexual predator. Kept in horrendous circumstances, beaten and subjected to the sort of physical, sexual and mental torture few could withstand, of course the big questions in these cases are: how can these people adjust back to any sort of normal life? They’ve been damaged, but at what point are people damaged beyond repair? How much recovery can take place?

I think, of course, of Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped at age 7  & held by a sexual predator. He managed to escape at age 14 taking another victim with him, but died in a motorcycle accident at age 24. In an interview, Steven, who had problems adjusting,  once said “I don’t know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn’t?” In a bizarre twist to this story, Steven Stayner’s brother Cary is a serial killer.

But back to our story of a 15 year old girl who is tricked into a life of prostitution and then rescued 10 years later. Bravo for presenting Scarlett’s story stripped of any prostitution mythology, and bravo again to the author for tackling some important social issues. Unfortunately, Scarlett’s story was so effective, so gripping that the rest of the novel couldn’t compare in readability.

Thanks to Caroline for directing me towards Elizabeth Haynes in the first place with her review of Into the Darkest Corner

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Haynes Elizabeth