Helle and Death by Oskar Jensen is a striking resuscitation of what often feels like the age-old murder mystery. This novel adds to this great genre of literature by taking on modern twists and turns that are developed through a Danish influenced perspective and diction usage that gives this novel a certain Scandinavian je ne sais quois that captivates the reader early on.
The novel is centered around Torben Helle, a Danish expat art-historian who is taken to a remote, gelid Northumbrian mansion for a ten-year reunion with university friends. This reunion turns into a mysterious, deadly, and unsettling experience as the friends’ harrowing journey begins to elapse. The usual harbingers of mystery are evident from the secluded mansion to the eccentricities of their host who gives the reader additional intrigue to dissect.
On narrative, Torben, as the protagonist of this novel and his relationships with his university friends and their intricacies make up much of this novel. While witty humor and stark tenseness juxtapose one-another throughout this novel, it should be noted that this is certainly a more character driven narrative at large. Secrets begin to emerge as copious alcohol is consumed and the night progresses. But more importantly, a sense of intimacy between friends allows for this atmosphere of reflection to slowly become one where the air is off and old fixations and unknown truths lead to greater distrust as the night wears on. This is perhaps most poignant in terms of Anthony Dodd’s revelations regarding his will. This plot seeks to solve the suspicious death that makes this narrative whole but is also heavily concerned with the relationships between characters.
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On setting, Jensen’s rich, atmospheric imagery and description allows the reader to fully surrender themselves to the jarring, hoary nature blanketing the world around the mansion and silencing the fear held within. I was intrigued by the mansion being presented as being owned by the most “successful” of the bunch in that such murder mysteries are often tied to the rich and the opulent homes they possess and this feels like an ode to this tradition. A certain sense of the traditional oozes through this novel despite its modern setting and this old-world feel at times, brings forward a sense of nostalgia in relation to the literature of the past.
On character, Jensen’s emphasis on careful diversity that only serves the core narrative should be paid attention to in that it allows the reader to work through the mystery with very few giveaways. This ensures not only that the readability is maintained but also allows for strength of narrative progression that keeps the reader consistently engaged. The variety of character backgrounds from a police inspector to an academic, serves to highlight a sense of contrast that reads as clearly well thought out.
As a conversational Danish speaker and admirer of Danish culture, I especially appreciated the carefully crafted and embedded commentary made by Helle in relation to rather comical commentary widely shared in Denmark. This is most poignant with sardonic reflections on the Swedes. Something important to note, is that this cultural embedding is important and seldom maintained in many novels. Jensen must be commended for this. In addition, the inclusion of a Danish glossary was a fantastic addition beyond pure utility.
As a whole, this is not the usual murder-mystery that has stoked interest for many generations. Instead, Helle and Death presents the reader with a more contemporary depiction of this genre while challenging anglophone hegemony through Danish additions that serve, on a deeper level, to engage with the greater multilingualism and multiculturalism that has begun to make this globalized world feel more like a village with each passing day. It should be said that the intensity of the denouement made up for the more character heavy slower middle of this novel.
While the ending packs a mighty punch, you will have to read this novel by Oskar Jensen to find out more. This all-engrossing novel launches in January 2024 and should definitely be on your reading list!