The Murder of HallandPia Juul
Denmark’s foremost literary author turns crime fiction on its head.
Bess and Halland live in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. When Halland is found murdered in the main square the police encounter only riddles. For Bess bereavement marks the start of a journey that leads her to a reassessment of first friends, then family.
LONG-LISTED FOR INTERNATIONAL IMPAC DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD 2014
LONG-LISTED FOR THE INDEPENDENT FOREIGN FICTION PRIZE 2013
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
If you like crime you won’t be disappointed. The book has all the right ingredients. A murder, a gun, an inspector, suspense. But the story strays far beyond the whodunnit norm. In beautifully stark language Pia Juul manages to chart the phases of bereavement. P.S. Don’t skip the quotes.
Written by Pia Juul.
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.
Small Epic Series
189pp, paperback with flaps, £10.00
Published June 2012
Pia Juul, born 1962, claims her place as one of Denmark’s foremost literary authors. She has published five books of poetry, two short story collections and two novels. The Murder of Halland was published in Danish in 2009 and has won Denmark’s most important literary prize, Den Danske Banks litteraturpris. Pia is the translator of Ali Smith and Alain de Botton into Danish.
Martin Aitken holds a PhD in Linguistics and gave up university tenure to listen to The Fall and translate literature. His work has appeared in book form and in literary journals. He lives in rural Denmark.
‘The Murder of Halland … is cooler and more calculated than any old Killing, and wrong-foots till it reveals the real mystery.’ Ali Smith in The Sunday Telegraph
‘The Murder of Halland resist the idea that things add up – and questions whether thoughts are accessible to the person who has had them, let alone anyone else … Bess sticks in the mind as a brilliantly drawn character.’ Christina Petrie, TLS
‘Anything but a standard crime novel. The mystery at its heart is the mystery we are to each other; it is written in succinct, sometimes surreal prose.’ The Economist
‘The novel leaves you with a lingering sense of strangeness.’ Independent on Sunday
‘A disturbing and painful account of a woman whose world has been knocked off its axis.’ The Guardian
The night before, we sat in the living room. I had a coffee; he drank a beer. We watched a police drama. ‘I wouldn’t mind looking like her,’ I said, referring to the detective, Danish TV’s only mature heroine. ‘You don’t, though, do you?’ I looked over at him. Women’s faces shrivel; men acquire substance. ‘You’ve acquired substance,’ I said. ‘Where?’ he asked, worried. ‘Ha ha ha,’ I laughed mockingly.
‘I need to leave at seven tomorrow morning,’ he said, and turned off the TV.
‘I’ll write for a bit.’ I hugged him as tight as I could. We kissed. I rubbed my cheek against his stubble. ‘Won’t be long.’
In my study I tripped over something. I shuffled gingerly to the desk and turned on the lamp. My laptop was in sleep mode. Next to it stood a glass of tepid water. I swallowed a mouthful before turning to the stereo and inserting a CD. Schumann filled the room. I turned off the CD player. I can only listen to such music if the volume’s turned way up, which wouldn’t have pleased the neighbours at this late hour.
I switched on the laptop, picked up a book, then put
it down again. I clicked open the document that came up on the screen. I had made the last set of changes two days earlier: just moved some commas, really. I thought of going to bed; perhaps he would still be awake. Feeling cold, I retrieved a jumper from the floor, pulled it over my head and began to read. Then I wrote.
Unusually, I became totally absorbed in my text and lost track of time. Eventually I looked up with an aching back. A grey dawn was breaking. I pushed the chair back and opened the window. A blackbird trilled on the roof of the summer house, greeting the loveliest of spring mornings. But when you haven’t slept and your limbs feel stiff and your mind is full and empty all at once, everything seems out of sorts.
I found myself wondering how to describe the colour of the fjord. Quite unlike me, too. With the sun coming up, the water changed hue with each passing second.
I didn’t want to wake Halland; he had to be up soon anyway. After going to the loo, I went back into the living room and collapsed on the sofa under a blanket. When I opened my eyes again, I knew a sound had woken me, but I had no idea what sound. An echo reverberated inside me. I sat up and ran my fingers through my hair the way they do in films. I pulled myself together again and clutched the blanket around my knees. Was I afraid? I don’t think so. That would have been psychic, insane almost. Though I remember thinking that something wasn’t quite right. Had I merely heard the door closing behind Halland?
I checked the bedroom and noticed the empty bed.
He had gone.
As I stood under the shower, I suddenly realized that I had seen his coat and briefcase in the hall. He hadn’t left the house after all. Turning off the water, I called out to him. Nothing. The silence made me anxious. I wrapped the towel around me and moved through the house. I passed the front door and caught sight of someone through the little frosted pane. There he is, about to come in. Then the doorbell rang. ‘Just a minute!’ I yelled, dashing into the bedroom. I yanked off the towel and pulled on Halland’s dressing gown, tying the cord as I went to open the door.
‘In the name of the law!’ proclaimed the bewildered-looking man on the step. His voice cracking, he raised his hand. ‘It is seven forty-seven. I am arresting you for… bear with me…’ He was out of breath.
I was stunned. Although I recognized the man, I didn’t know him personally. Every morning he parked his car opposite the house, by the police station. Once I had gone to the station to get my passport renewed. I had no idea whether he was a clerk or a policeman. I didn’t laugh: this clearly wasn’t a laughing matter. The man was beside himself. He looked terrified.
‘Are you the wife of Halland Roe?’ he asked.
‘I’m arresting you for the murder of your husband…’ Breathless, the man doubled over.
I stepped out onto the cold cobbles and looked around. A crowd had gathered at the far end of the square. Sirens approached from a distance.
‘What’s happened?’ I asked.
Inger came out of the house next door. ‘What’s going on, Bjørn?’ she asked the man.
‘Halland Roe’s been shot!’ he gasped, while he gestured across the square. Then he pointed at me. ‘She did it…’
‘Stop her!’ the idiot yelled, chasing after me. But I wasn’t running away; I was running to see what had happened. This was ridiculous. I was astonished not so much that I had been accused but rather that Halland was the one who had been shot. I didn’t believe it. Not until I saw his body.
‘If you leave me,’ my ex-husband had said ten years earlier, ‘you’ll never see Abby again.’
‘It’s not for you to decide!’ I replied. The shrillness in my voice surprised me. Abby was fourteen at the time; surely she could decide for herself. And she decided. Either he knew her better than I did, which was likely, or he talked her into it, which was equally possible. Since then I had only seen her a few times. She was a stubborn girl. I owned a little album with photos of her. I had looked through the pages so often that they were all dog-eared.
It is of course easy to be sentimental. She despised me; and I despised myself when I thought about it, so I hardly ever did. I nearly gave up drinking after I moved out; at least I stopped getting drunk. As I cried about Abby, I could sense through the cloud of alcohol Halland’s irritation that I thought more about her than him. He didn’t
mind if I just drank a beer or a glass of wine as long as I remained in his thrall. He didn’t need to say a thing; I knew his little signals. Anyway, if I hadn’t been besotted by him, staying would have been pointless.
I stopped. I stared down at the bulk that was Halland’s body. His face against the cobbles, one eye half open. His full mouth, his thin lips. His white hair combed back from his face. His black tie, his bloodstained shirt. Substance.
I thought of Abby.
The wet cobbles glistened in the morning light. Normally, the square would be deserted. Now it was filling with people. Roses bloomed against the yellow and whitewashed walls.
Someone said, ‘That’s her husband.’ Everyone stepped back, but I had seen enough. I sensed them all staring at me. An inexplicable urge to fling myself across the body and weep overcame me, but everything seemed hazy and unreal, and theatrics wouldn’t change anything. So I turned and walked back towards the house on icy feet. The door was still open. The minute I took hold of the handle, I began to shake. I staggered inside and fell to the floor, where I curled up, sobbing. But I didn’t think, Halland! Oh, Halland! I thought, Abby! I want Abby!
For Reading Groups
Have a look at our reading group questions for The Murder of Halland:
1 Which elements in this short novel stem from traditional crime fiction?
2 How would you describe Bess’s behaviour after she learns about her husband’s death?
3 What is your reaction towards Bess? Do you consider her grieving process a conventional one? Does a ‘conventional’ grieving process exist?
4 Bess spends much of her time trying to understand a character she can no longer question directly. Halland never appears in the present narrative, so the reader never precisely meets him either. How much could you gather about Halland from the text? How do you think the author conveys information about Halland without showing his thought process on the page?
5 It seems Halland kept many secrets from Bess. Did you ever wonder whether Bess was hiding anything from us, the readers, especially considering the fact that she is a writer and knows how to fabricate stories?
6 Bess is surrounded by complicated personal relationships. What do you think you learnt about Bess from the way other characters react to her?
7 Bess’ most vivid memory of being with Halland is of an ordinary, but intimate bus trip they took together. How did the description of that episode make you feel about their relationship?
8 Mystery surrounds many of the character’s motivations, as people appear and disappear in Bess’ life seemingly at random. Do you think the theme of personal mystery compliments the mystery surrounding Halland’s murder?
9 ‘The Murder of Halland’ doesn’t provide a definitive solution to its central mystery and much of Halland’s life remains as mysterious to the reader as it does to Bess. What is your own interpretation of events and who do you think shot Halland?
10 Is it important to know who shot Halland?
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