Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (translation by Tara Chace) (Soho Press, 2012) is the second books featuring Nina Borg who works as a nurse at the Coal-House Camp, an official asylum for refugees staying in Denmark. To prove her credentials as one of these well-meaning people who go out of their way to help the disadvantaged, she moonlights for The Network. Unlike the Coal-House Camp, this is an unofficial group of people who have dedicated themselves to helping Denmark’s deportees and illegal immigrants. Because these people cannot use Denmark’s health services without surrendering to the law, they are heavily dependent on people like Nina who have enough medical knowledge to keep them as healthy as possible. Her husband, Morten, does not approve of her involvement with The Network and, before he sets off for work on an oil rig, extracts a promise she will not do anything “compromising” while he’s away. Ah, if only people could keep such promises, there would be no books like this.
In prefatory fashion, the story begins in Hungary, where two young Roma men decide to make yet another pass through a facility abandoned by the Soviet Union at the end of its occupation of Hungary. Because of unexpected subsidence, the scavengers have the first bite of the cherry in a previously sealed lower level. As is always the way, we’re not told what they find, but Tamás sees the possibility of great wealth. This takes him to a local Roma gang boss, and thence to Budapest where he briefly hooks up with his half-brother Sandor Horvath. This proves disastrous for Sandor who just wants to complete his law degree and quietly forget his past as a Roma. Unfortunately the internet communications Tamás makes using Sandor’s computer bring him to the attention of the police and, in turn, the disclosure of his Roma origins leads to his dismissal from the university. Prejudices run deep in Hungary (and elsewhere). Needless to say, this neatly brings all the major players to Copenhagen where Søren Kirkegard in the Danish Security and Intelligence Service counterterrorism unit is soon interested in the websites “Sandor Horvath” spent time on.
What follows is a fascinating insight into current Danish culture. As one of the Scandinavian countries, it has enjoyed a reputation as being a tolerant liberal democracy, one of the “good world citizens”. Unfortunately, the decision of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper to publish drawings of the Prophet Muhammad was approved by the government and at the UN climate summit we saw heavy-handed policing to suppress peaceful protests. There are also more general straws in the wind suggesting the growth of xenophobia, particularly affecting the increasing numbers of Moslems making their home there. For decades, Moslems have been denied permits to build a mosque in Copenhagen and there were no Muslim cemeteries. This book revolves around the building work to create the first mosque in Copenhagen. With the Danish Government due to attend the official opening, this is a flashpoint moment.
On the way, we get to see something of the plight of refugees in Denmark. In many ways, the official system is shown as deficient. The unofficial is dire. The exploitation of these individuals is shown in an unflinching way. Those who have money must pay. If there’s no money, there are other ways of paying.
I don’t think I suffer from compassion fatigue. I hope I retain sufficient morality to be offended by news of those victimised around the world. But in fiction, I begin to wonder whether there’s too consistent a trend to incorporate “suffering” into novels. Unlike the news media where there’s a level of saturation, novels have tended to focus on less obviously exploitational content. Although the plots may require readers to walk through settings where people are being victimised or they have come to escape victimisation, these have been in the background. Now authors are parading their own outrage through their novels, some explicitly using the medium to engage in a political debate about how “we” should react. In this book, we’re given a terrific adventure/crime plot. What the young men find in Hungary and why this is of interest to people in Denmark are credible. The question we should ask ourselves is whether the plot becomes the basis of a better novel because the young men are Roma and Nina gets involved with them because they are in the country illegally. It would have been perfectly possible to write this without any reference to the suffering of the Roma, making the book a straight antiterrorism story about a criminal gang smuggling people and “stuff” across borders. Nina could meet the injured Sandor in the street and, as the Good Samaritan, find herself caught up in exactly the same way. I’m not saying that I don’t want to read about the terrible treatment of people who find themselves in Denmark illegally. In this case, the “truth” exposed by the novel is yet one more piece of suffering to add to the many others. I suppose it’s slightly more shocking because I still tend to think of Denmark as better than this. But I’m not entirely convinced this is a “better” novel because it dips into the seamy side of Denmark and shows us where some of the bodies are buried (literally and metaphorically). So taken in the best possible light, Invisible Murder is a powerful book which deals with a threatened terrorist attack in Copenhagen. It’s an exciting thriller. But I remain on the fence as to whether I approve of this politicisation of novel writing.
For a review of the next in the series, see Death of a Nightingale.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.