Until recently, the term “Scandinavian import” evoked blond wood and incomprehensible instructions, not tightly packed and darkly intricate crime novels. Stieg Larsson’s Swedish shockwave The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo changed that, making northern Europe a hotspot for mystery—and misogyny, as reviewers worldwide debated whether his books exposed violence against women, or recreated it. Now, thanks to Danish novelists Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, there is an alternative for readers who want twists and thrills without Larsson’s undercurrents of sexual sadism—The Boy in the Suitcase.
(Just to get it out of the way, the title isn’t a rip-off. Kaaberbøl says “in our part of the world, the Larsson books don’t all have titles that start with ‘The Girl Who.’” The original Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women. The English title didn’t come about until 2008—the same year that The Boy in the Suitcase won the prestigious Harald Mogensen Award for best crime novel. And was short-listed for the Scandinavian Glass Key Award for crime fiction. And began being translated into 10 languages. And … well, you get the picture.)
The protagonist of The Boy in the Suitcase is Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse with a passion for dangerous circumstances. Equal parts humanitarian and adrenalin junkie, she works at a refugee center for undocumented women and children in Copenhagen. Her job brings her into contact with an unending stream of human misery, but it’s an old friend from nursing school that nearly gets her killed, when she asks Nina to retrieve a suitcase from a locker in a busy train station—the suitcase contains a boy. Alive, drugged, and nonverbal, the pursuit of his identity leads Nina to the edges of Danish society, where the ultrarich take whatever they want from the poorest of the poor, including their children.
While the plot is made up, it’s not implausible. Friis and Kaaberbøl did extensive interviews and research into the lives of undocumented children in Denmark. “What we discovered was really rather frightening,” says Kaaberbøl. “Over the past seven years more than 600 have quite simply disappeared from the refugee centers.” Through Nina, Friis and Kaaberbøl explore the chilling possibilities behind these disappearances.
For a book set in such a dark demi-monde, where teen prostitutes, human trafficking, and sexual abuse are frequently referenced, The Boy in the Suitcase is remarkably empathic. Much of the violence happens offstage, and what remains is neither sugar-coated nor wallowed in. We experience brutality’s aftermath (both physical and psychological), and Nina notes injuries in a nurse’s clinical tone. But Jucas, the Lithuanian petty thug who enacts most of the novel’s violence, is more likely to spend a beating thinking about his victim’s psychological sense of safety than the face beneath his fists. This was a conscious choice by the authors.
“When you’re very graphic about how people are being killed, and raped, and tortured and so on,” says Friis, “it’s almost as if what you’re writing is a how done it, where the how is almost more important than the who—and certainly more important than the why.”
The Boy in the Suitcase is haunting precisely because it is less interested in the mechanics of violence, and more interested in the causes. You feel as much the tragedy of lives wasted as the brutality of lives ended. But don’t worry, this isn’t some moody continental novel where the characters chain smoke and argue quietly about existentialism. The Boy in the Suitcase ratchets along at a breathless pace, skillfully switching points of view in a tightly choreographed arrangement. Perhaps this comes from the fact that Friis and Kaaberbøl are both acclaimed young-adult novelists, accustomed to writing for audiences that don’t do boring.
But more than the pacing, or even the actual mystery itself, the character of Nina is Friis and Kaaberbøl’s triumph. Socially responsible but parentally negligent, caring but capable of clinical detachment, she has a very real mix of flaws and strengths. Unlike many mystery protagonists, she is both someone we admire, and someone we feel we could be. She is not intrinsically, impossibly more skilled than we are (unlike a certain girl with a certain tattoo). But she does the things we only imagine doing.
“Like most people,” says Kaaberbøl of herself and Friis, “we just pay a certain amount to charity organizations and hope other people do the dirty work.”
Nina Borg is the fulfillment of that hope. At the end of The Boy in the Suitcase, when a panicked phone call brings a fresh mystery in the middle of the night, we know she cannot help but act. It’s what we wish she would do. It’s what we wish we would do. Thankfully, the next Nina Borg book has already been published in Denmark, and should be on American shelves late next year, so we won’t have long until our hopes are realized.