Forty Days Without Shadow by Olivier Truc; trans Louise Rogers LaLaurie, book review


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This thriller is set among the reindeer herds on the snows of Lapland, but Christmas card country it ain't. The "forty days" of the title are those when the sun never rises. And this is the 21st century.

The herders' diets may now feature deep-frozen Béarnaise sauce and burgers. There are few left who travel by sledge and, as was traditional practice, castrate their reindeer with their teeth (apologies, Dancer and Prancer!).

Reindeer rustling has always been a local practice, and modern lawlessness has arrived. A special detachment has been formed to deal with it, the Reindeer Police, who chase wrongdoers on snowmobiles, now the usual mode of transport. Officer Klemet Nango and rookie cop Nina Nansen are called to a particularly bloody scene where an impoverished alcoholic herdsman has been killed, and his ears snipped off, as is usually done by reindeer thieves to conceal the owner's markings.

The Reindeer Police have their own problems, pressurised by their superiors since an important international conference is about to be held in Oslo and it would not look too good to have hacked-off human ears on their doorstep. And Nina in particular has to develop quickly beyond her sheltered and deeply Christian background: she is an attractive character, shy, yet possessing a confidence in her work and value.

At the time of the murder, a strange theft has taken place: an ancient tribal drum has been stolen from the Kautokeino Museum, which has a fine array of Sami artefacts donated by a well-meaning collector. The drum has particular significance, for it belonged to a long line of shamans and on its birchwood sides are painted mysterious, almost indecipherable scenes.

The sound of such instruments was much feared by the Swedish and Norwegian authorities who oppressed this tiny and persecuted people, for it might summon an uprising, or even demonic spirits. In the 17th century Swedish Lutherans hunted down native spiritual leaders and burnt their drums, sometimes alongside their owners. One inheritor of the old ways is Aslak, "half-man, half-beast", who once killed a wolf with his bare hands and has the scars to prove it. He has secrets of his own as well as the deep collective memory of his people, and is hired by a French geologist to take him deep into the tundra. But Klemet and Nina are in search of the missing drum, and a sexual predator is now at large: these paths will cross in the wilderness where the fight merely to survive is savage enough.

With storylines that shoot along as if over ice, yet with unusual depth, Forty Days Without Shadow has won numerous awards and justly so. The author, the Nordic correspondent of Le Monde, has a deep understanding and love of the furthest stretches of his territory. Highly recommended: just as we might have thought Scandinavian crime was exhausted, a brilliant new voice comes along.