Hello, everyone! It’s been a brick since I wrote my last blog post. One could say that it felt as long and bitter as a Nordic winter. Yes, I’ve read yet another Scandinavian crime thriller and my head is clogged with the imagery of frost-tipped pine trees and gruesomely depicted murder scenes. But hear me out, dear readers. This time, it’s different. No longer must we settle for miserable alcoholic protagonists, their paper-thin female colleagues, and the depraved, sexualized killings of random women on the street. The book jacket may claim that Steffen Jacobsen’s Trophy takes after the likes of Jo Nesbø and Steig Larsson, but unlike the latter’s works, Trophy won’t make you want to hang yourself after reading it. No, dear readers, you can sleep well at night knowing that Jacobsen’s novel is an intelligent and dare I say, fun, Nordic crime thriller with just enough crime to titillate, and enough restraint to let you sleep at night.
Synopsis: After discovering a compromising DVD of her deceased father participating in a fatal manhunt, Elisabeth Caspersen hires special security consultant Michael Sander to investigate. At the same time, Superintendent Lene Jensen takes up the case of Kim Andersen, a veteran whose suicide seems to reveal a host of illegal activities. As the two cases become more complex, Michael and Lene are pulled deeper into the underground world of tech billionaires, lethal veterans, and organized manhunts, and must work together to stop a shadowy group of killers from destroying the life they hold dear.
My take: Let me start by commending the translator, Charlotte Barslund, for her masterful translation from Danish to English. The book reads incredibly smoothly and none of the abundant humor is lost in translation. For a novel about psychotic veterans and manhunts, Jacobsen’s novel is full of jokes and sarcastic quips. It has the same dry-humor as a 1940s radio-play, and the two main characters capture that classic sort of amicable bickering. Unlike other dreadfully dour novels in the genre, the protagonists in Trophy do not take themselves too seriously. Michael Sander, despite being an uber-professional security consultant (he has a website on the dark web!!) is humble and a tad goofy. While several characters in the book remark on Sander’s skill and renown, he still makes plenty of mistakes and takes a few beatings. I appreciated that he was a fully human character without a smidgen of Sherlockian insight into the criminal mind. In a genre saturated with clairvoyant detectives, it was refreshing to read about a character who has the abilities of a realistic detective.
Lene Jensen is equally as refreshing. She’s just as skilled as Michael and suffers from no over-sexualization nor sex-based denigration. In fact, no female characters in the novel suffer from the typical degradation you might see in a Nordic crime novel. Trophy does feature some violence against women, but it serves an explicit narrative purpose, unlike the exploitative sadism in Nesbø’s The Thirst or the numerous instances of over-the-top sexual violence in Larsson’s Millenium series.
Neither protagonists suffer from tragic backstories, burdensome addictions, or pathetic home lives. Both characters have a family that they love, hobbies and passions, and treat the job as a career, not a lifestyle. It was truly a joy to read about two well-adjusted detectives. Being inside the mind of yet another alcoholic womanizer (like Nesbø’s Harry Hole) can get incredibly dreary.
Apart from crafting realistic characters with an enjoyable rapport, Jacobsen also excels at creating an intelligent thriller. The mystery builds layer by layer, simple enough for the reader to play detective, but with enough complexity to make the ending reveal somewhat surprising. Amidst the intrigue, Jacobsen weaves in statements about the nature of violent masculinity and the need for accountability in wartime. He makes many comparisons between the organized man-hunt and the behavior of soldiers in Bosnia and Iraq, implying that by placing more value on strategy than casualties, the military encourages soldiers to dehumanize civilians in order to achieve their goals. Whether or not you approve of his anti-war themes, Jacobsen makes a compelling argument against the uber-masculine culture of the military, characterizing its tribalism as a breeding ground for culturally accepted violence. While other Nordic crime novels have failed to integrate such poignant social commentary into their plots, Jacobsen effortlessly integrates his themes without distracting from the main event.
Perhaps you’re not looking for amusement in your crime novels, but if you’re tired of the doom and gloom, I highly recommend Trophy. It’s fun, fast-paced, intelligent, and socially-aware. Michael and Lene make a wonderful pair, and it even has a happy ending. So, put down your Nesbø’s and your Larsson’s! Steffen Jacobsen is the only crime writer you need to read to outlast this frigid Nordic winter.