The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl, translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally

The Land of Dreams can be classified as Nordic Crime.  On the surface it is the story of an elaborate murder in a small Minnesota town. Minnesota is known for having a large Skandinavian-American community. Norwegian characters are involved. The book explores the dark side of human nature.  But, if it is Nordic Crime, it is atypical of the genre. Put aside the fact that the story is set in America.  The plot is only tangentially interested in solving the mystery or describing the minutiae of the investigation.  Writing in the third person Vidar Sundstøl focuses on two men – the American officer who found the body and the Norwegian detective who is sent to represent his country in the investigation.  Their interactions and impressions, both on and off the case, overshadow the mystery.

Lance Hansen is a police officer for the U.S. Forest Service with a predilection for local history. While investigating a routine call – illegal campers – he makes a gruesome discovery. Two Norwegian canoeists: one dead. The other huddled, bloody and naked, at the base of a large stone cross.  When a fellow officer comments that this is the first murder committed in Cook County history Hansen becomes curious.  What he learns impacts his relationship to the past and has repercussions in the present.

Because the murder takes place within the borders of Lake Superior National Park the FBI is brought in to head the investigation. Hansen is indisputably the novel’s protagonist, but Sundstøl chooses to spend much of the book following Eirik Nyland, a detective sent from Norway to partner with the FBI.  Nyland is obviously a stand-in for the author (who lived for 2 years in Minnesota).

The locals identify themselves as Norwegian- and Swedish-Americans, but most are several generations removed and have never visited their “homelands”.  Nyland’s observations are surreal and funny, without being cruel.  A tenderness comes through, one that makes me believe that Sundstøl enjoyed his time in America.  In one passage a local police officer working on the investigation, Sparky Redmeyer, invites Nyland and the American FBI agents to the local Fourth of July celebration.  The American agents are obviously not impressed.  After they leave Nyland learns that Redmeyer gave up spending the day with his family in order to show the men around.  Nyland tells him “I think it’s great…. I’ve never been to a Fourth of July celebration before.  It’s something I’ll remember all my life.  I’m grateful you took the trouble to bring us out here today.”

“Oh, that’s okay.  It was no trouble,” said Redmeyer.  His face suddenly radiated genuine joy.  “Really no trouble at all.  Just ordinary hospitality.”

Nyland turned around, pretending to study the people at the neighboring tables as he smiled.  It was impossible not to smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d encountered such a sincere response from an adult.  And someone he didn’t even know very well.  It made him happy.  At the same time, it struck him that Sparky Redmeyer would not have made a very good investigator.  That job required being able to play a covert game with people, as well as the ability to expose the double-dealing and hidden agendas of others.  An investigator constantly had to listen for what people were not saying.

Later that day the two men will run into Lance Hansen.  They separate, agreeing to meet again later. The author then follows Hansen who walks along the shore of the lake and has an eerie encounter.

A man was kneeling in the back of the canoe. He was using a short, old-fashioned oar, which also looked new and beautiful. The man wore a dark jacket nd a big round hat. His clothes looked old and tattered. He was paddling with slow, steady strokes,  making the canoe glide lightly and quickly through the water.

Lance had an urge to call out to the man.  It wasn’t unusual to shout and wave to somebody in a boat. And this was a very special kind of boat.He was just about to raise his hand when the man stopped paddling and turned to look toward Lance standing on the breakwater. His face was filthy, in a shin sort of way, as if he’d spent a long time sitting in front of a bonfire. And now Lance recognized him.  This was the man he’d seen walking along Highway 61 the day he drove to Two Harbors to visit Andy and Tammy….

Lance thought his jacket looked like he’d found it in the attic of a house that had been unoccupied since before World War II.  Discovered in the attic and then put to use, without giving it so much as a good brushing. At one time it had apparently been black, maybe a suit jacket, but now it was so worn it seemed almost gray. And then there was the man’s hat with the wide, round brim that drooped a bit, as if it had been in the water for a long time and lost some of its original shape. The man in the canoe was truly a pitiful sight. And yet Lance felt nailed to the spot by the man’s eyes. Because he wasn’t merely looking at Lance, he had fixed his eyes on him. Lance felt his legs turn heavy and stiff while his heart hammered unpleasantly. He didn’t know what there was about this man – all he knew was that he’d never experienced this feeling before. Never. To feel someone looking at him this way. A man like this.

Most events, including the initial discovery of the body, are written in this kind of even-handed prose style.  The graphic violence and gratuitous sadism that I’ve come to associate with Nordic Crime is (thankfully) absent from The Land of Dreams.  Furthermore, Sundstol’s writing is devoid of emotional bias.  The reader never ascends dramatic peaks or falls into valleys.  None of the characters descend into archtypes.  Nyland, while kind, views his hosts with the attitude of a scientist peering at amoebas through a microscope.  Hansen, while both decent and honorable, sometimes displays a small-mindedness that fits a little too neatly into the small town/Red State stereotype.  The story drifts amiably along in this way until the end, with little to no fanfare.  Everything – the characters, all the descriptions and dialogue – feels normal.  Almost mundane. Even Tiina Nunnally’s translation; which rings somewhat awkward and overly formal to American ears. The combined effect is charming.

The Land of Dreams is an unusual interpretation of what, in the beginning, appears to be a fairly typical murder-mystery.  There are allusions to a ghost story. Pages are spent on the history of the town, the immigrant families who settled the area and the Native Americans who were there first.  The central mystery – the murder of the Norwegian tourist – feels more like a red herring than a central plot point.  In that way it reminded me quite a bit of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.  The stories are very different, of course.  But the authors both use murder as the jumping off point to explore family dynamics and the secrets that can tear families apart.

_________________

The Land of Dreams is Book 1 of Sundstøl’s  award-winning Minnesota Trilogy.  There is a lot of material in this first book, much of it left unresolved, any piece of which could be spun into a novel all its own.   After doing a little research online I found a link to a description of Book 2: Only the Dead (contains spoilers for The Land of Dreams!).  And at the blog Mystery Fanfare there is a great guest post by Vidar Sundstøl.  Only the Dead is due out in 2014.

Publisher:  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8166 8940 8

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