If you know that Pia Juul’s novel The Murder of Halland (Mordet på Halland – Das Leben nach dem Happy End) plays with reader expectations, then you might enjoy this novel. If, however, you expect a conventional crime novel, you might be a little disappointed. Yes, it’s about a crime, but not a crime novel per se.
Pia Juul is a Danish writer, that’s why I read the German translation (I think that German is closer to most Nordic languages than English). While the English title is a literal translation of the Danish title, the German publisher chose to call the book “Life after the Happy End”. I don’t like the title but, at least, it didn’t sound like it was a crime novel.
The book opens with the murder of Halland. Or rather the discovery of his dead body. The man who found him says that Halland’s last words were “My wife killed me.” The reader knows that Bess, his partner, didn’t kill him. She was in the house, while he was shot.
Bess is a writer who left her first husband and her daughter because of Halland. She hasn’t seen her daughter since the girl was fourteen years old and has suffered because of this separation ever since. The daughter is now a young woman of 24.
Like most readers, even though I knew this wasn’t a typical crime novel, I assumed that the book would explore who shot Halland and why. The police does investigate, but it’s a half-hearted investigation. Of course, that’s not realistic, it was the writers choice to present the story this way. The reason for this is revealed later in the book when Bess watches a crime movie on TV and tells the reader that she’s never interested in the “who did it part” of a crime story and mostly forgets the end. She is much more interested in the people involved. The life of the victim, the investigator, and the friends and relatives of the victim. I feel a lot like Bess. I read crime novels for many reasons. Finding out who did it isn’t that important for me.
When Bess hears of Halland’s death, her first reaction is to call her estranged daughter. That reaction alone makes it clear we’re not going to read an ordinary story and from here on, Bess reacts in a rather unconventional way. And this is exactly why I found this book so great. Luckily, most of us will not encounter murder. We won’t find our partners shot dead or be friends with someone whose partner has been shot dead. So, why do we assume we know how a person would react under the circumstances? We think we know because we see how people in movies and books react. But maybe they wouldn’t cry and grief, maybe they would just go a little crazy? Maybe they would be so shocked that they wouldn’t react at all and just withdraw from the world?
Bess does go a little crazy but there are a lot of other things that are strange and the reader discovers with Bess that Halland may not have been who she thought he was and that he had secrets. Here again, expectations are not met. There are secrets but they are different from what we assume and possibly do not have anything to do with the murder as such. Or maybe they do? That’s for you to find out.
I really enjoyed this book. I found it refreshing, loved the brittle tone and how surprising it was. It’s never forseeable how Bess will react and in what direction the story will go next.
It’s a thought-provoking book that leaves a lot open. If you prefer the end of your novels to be less enigmatic, then this isn’t a book for you. If you like something more unusual, with unpredictable characters, then give it a try.
Here’s another take on the novel from Guy’s blog.