SECOND OPINION: The Frozen Woman by Jon Michelet

Review published on June 13, 2017.

This is consummate crime writing from a master of the craft. A police procedural with more than one kink and original twist. The Frozen Woman was published nearly twenty years ago in Norway so it’s freshness is all the more remarkable. Jon Michelet is not well known in the English speaking world but I hope this novel goes a long way to addressing that anomaly. I almost missed out on the pleasure of reading The Frozen Woman because in all honesty I hadn’t heard of Michelet until No Exit Press published this novel. The Frozen Woman is an intelligent thriller but I wasn’t particularly excited by the first few pages – it doesn’t grip early on. The novel sets up the characters and their relationships; there is very little plot beyond identifying that a woman has been murdered and dumped. Without giving anything away, this is crucial to the tale because thereafter brief appearances drive the plot with increasing intensity. I know a lot of novels build slowly developing characterisation but it is particularly well done and a richer story emerges because of that. Then, 50 pages in, a new strand to the story opens and things begin to heat up. What emerges is an original, clever and highly entertaining mystery. One that seems grounded in reality, both in the type of crime and the way the investigation unfolds. The Frozen Woman has all the sophistication of a veteran writer at the top of his game.

Vilhelm Thygesen is a left-wing lawyer with no love for the police – the feeling is mutual. He reports finding the frozen body of a young woman in his garden. The two Criminal Politisentral (Kripo) detectives called to the scene, Stribolt and Vaage, instantly suspect Thygesen of involvement. Thygesen lives in a big house, he has nice things and yet he is claiming state benefits. He has a bad reputation with law enforcement, too many dodgy connections, a murder conviction dating back nearly 30 years and a more recent charge of petty fraud in the 1990s. The murdered woman bears a striking resemblance to Thygesen’s tenant, Vera Alam, who rents a small cottage in the grounds. Thygesen swears that Vera is in Bosnia working for Norwegian People’s Aid. A week later the team confirm that Vera Alam is in hospital in Sarajevo being treated for cancer but very much alive. Bang goes the first theory – the victim, unidentified, becomes known as ‘Picea’. Kripo are looking at any plausible link between the killing and Thygesen with no joy. Then, Øystein Strand, fresh out of prison, member of the Seven Samurai bike gang, rides his bike off the road and kills himself – except it wasn’t an accident, the brakes were cut. How this links to the murder of the woman, the involvement of Thygesen, big business oil interests, rival biker gangs, drug trafficking and old world politics becomes clear as the story unfolds.

Michelet has woven a story around the chilling death of a woman that leaves no evidential footprint. In 2000, hundreds women from outside Western Europe were murdered in our countries and often remain unidentified. As Larsson says of the investigation, solving the crime will be difficult: “….because there are no friends or acquaintances to report to us”. It is a haunting thought that not only could a murder occur and remain unsolved but the victim’s family never known of their fate, nobody grieves at the graveside.

Stribolt and Vaage are the lead detectives on the investigation and they play off each other brilliantly; they are healthily competitive, close enough to tease each other and both hard working decent police officers. The most intriguing character in The Frozen Woman is Thygesen, the semi-disgraced lawyer; he is at the heart of the story – roguishly intelligent, slightly shady, detached but also charming. But is he the murderer? What does he know about the dead woman? Thygesen makes brief appearances in the novel but his presence overhangs the plot, even when the action heats up. He is the catalyst for the story and his relationship to the investigation and the police officers seesaws and is fascinating. Ultimately, the denouement is satisfyingly pacy.

The story feels like it could be lifted from a newspaper; a crime that is tawdry and brutal, solved with good police work, a lot of luck and time. There is so much more going on in the background. The criminals are venal and stupid in equal measure. If they weren’t so hell bent on cheating each other and internecine wars they would be even more dangerous to society (ambition exceeds talent).

Jon Michelet is a well-known literary figure in his native Norway, from his Thygesen crime novels and his ‘a hero of the sea’ series set in WWII to plays and football reportage. He is twice winner of the Riverton Prize for Norway’s best crime novel, most recently for this novel, The Frozen Woman, his first to be translated into English for some time. Judging by the standard of this novel, it is easy to believe that he is one of the leading lights of the Norwegian noir tradition. It would be great if more of the Thygesen series could be published in English in the future.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Frozen Woman by Jon Michelet
No Exit Press 9781843442929 hbk Sep 2017

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