Everything about WHERE MONSTERS DWELL is terrific except for the title. Don’t let that turn you off. I initially thought that this outstanding debut by Norwegian author Jørgen Brekke was a study of the monster comic books of the late 1950s, many of which bore names similar to that of his frequently awarded work. Well, contraire, mon frere; this is a fine murder mystery that spans two continents and 500 years without breaking a sweat.
Books and matters literary are at the heart of WHERE MONSTERS DWELL, though one does not have to be a bibliophile to enjoy or appreciate this work, which seamlessly incorporates the modern and the ancient. The primary focus is on the present. Two very similar murders occur within a month of each other. One is in Richmond, Virginia, at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum; the other takes place in Trondheim, Norway, in a library archive room filled with rare books. Naturally, police investigating the crimes in the separate jurisdictions are each unaware of the other murder.
"...a fine murder mystery that spans two continents and 500 years without breaking a sweat."
In Norway, the investigation is being handled by Odd Singsaker, who is just back on the job after having a brain tumor removed. Singsaker is experiencing mild postoperative memory problems, and is somewhat fragile emotionally as the result of his wife leaving him in the middle of his medical emergency. Felicia Stone is the police officer tasked with investigating the Richmond side of the equation; she has her own problems resulting from a sexual assault that occurred during her senior year of high school.
Brekke breaks a number of comfortable rules during the course of the novel, a major one being that he takes his sweet time bringing Singsaker and Stone together. Rather than teaming them up at the beginning of the book and telling their stories backward, one in relation to the other, we get to know each of them quite well and separately over the course of a couple of hundred pages before Stone makes the Norwegian connection to her own investigation and makes the transcontinental flight in an attempt to wrap things up. The suspense is quietly exquisite; the crimes committed are certainly heinous enough to give the reader cause to want the doer apprehended as soon as possible. The ominous question that lingers throughout the proceedings is why: why these crimes, and why these victims. Brekke throws in a Norwegian red herring or two along the way, particularly near the end, as it is established that perhaps murder is not the only crime being committed.
The narrative, finely translated to English by Steven T. Murray, hops back and forth between Richmond and Trondheim today and in the 16th century, where the seeds of the mayhem sprouting in the present are unintentionally planted. By story’s end, it is clear that the motivations of all concerned, for better and worse, are the oldest and most basic kind.
WHERE MONSTERS DWELL was originally published in Norway in 2011; Brekke has since published two additional mystery novels that are sequels to his fine debut. It is my hope that Murray is hard at work translating those titles for their eventual publication in the US, given the clamor for more of Brekke, which is sure to occur once this book is discovered by American readers.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 7, 2014