THE HANGING. What a great title. It tells you (almost) everything you need to know about this terrific novel --- a debut, but much more than that --- from a brother-and-sister writing team who have produced a seamless, horrific and darkly humorous story that will bounce around in your brain cells during and after your reading of it.
The book begins with a gruesome discovery in a school gymnasium located in the northern outskirts of Copenhagen, Denmark. Five corpses are found hanging from the ceiling, mutilated in such a way that immediate identification of the victims is impossible. However, the element that they have in common is all too quickly revealed by the individuals responsible for the presentation of the grisly tableau. Detective Konrad Simonsen and his squad are tasked with apprehending the culprits. Their investigation has barely begun, though, when another person with a connection to the school gym victims is also murdered and the prime suspect in the case commits suicide.
"THE HANGING. What a great title. It tells you (almost) everything you need to know about this terrific novel --- a debut, but much more than that --- from a brother-and-sister writing team who have produced a seamless, horrific and darkly humorous story that will bounce around in your brain cells during and after your reading of it."
Simonsen and his team utilize forensics and good old-fashioned shoe leather to run down a few tenuous leads, but there are problems from the beginning. The primary one is that the majority of the populace --- including some on the police force itself --- do not want the murderers caught. The reason is that the victims belong to a subculture whose activities are so heinous that the collective mind is instinctively and reflexively repulsed by them. I’m being circumspect in revealing precisely what that is, not out of delicacy but rather because it is a key plot element that needs to be revealed to the reader in due time within the story itself. Notwithstanding the victims’ activities during their lives, Simonsen is focused and determined --- his job is to catch killers --- but it’s an uphill battle, impeded on all sides. Simonsen is an interesting character --- older, with a somewhat unhealthy lifestyle that seems to be breathing down his neck constantly --- but his staff, a multi-talented bunch, each of whom has their own set of issues, matches him at every turn.
Perhaps the book’s most interesting element is the totally unsympathetic nature of the victims. The murders are the end result of vigilante justice, pure and simple, yet it is, as a practical matter, indisputable that society is better off if such individuals are “taken off the board,” so to speak. When one further considers that the criminal penalties for such offenses in which the murdered individuals engaged are far more lenient than in, say, the United States, it is easy to understand why this book has been as widely read and as controversial as it has been in the authors’ native Denmark. But there will be plenty of opportunity for discussion of the issues raised here on this side of the world as well.
Not everything, though, is as dark as its primary topic. There is intermittent relief, including an erotic encounter that is jolting in its presentation in the early stages of the book and subject to one of the more interesting examples of coitus interruptus that I’ve encountered in a literary work. And if you find that the novel ends all too soon, fear not: four additional volumes featuring Simonsen have already been published in Denmark, and two more are planned.
If THE HANGING is any indication, team Hammer’s success in their home country soon will be matched here as well.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 26, 2013