THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE: LENE KAABERBOL [also translator] and AGNETE FRIIS

Posted: February 21, 2012 in Book Awards, Denmark, Lithuania, review, Scandinavia

This Danish crime thriller was shortlisted for the Nordic Glass Key, and has among the very positive blurbs on the back cover one from Maj Sjowall, co-author of the Martin Beck series. I worry that such highly praised books sometimes don’t live up to my expectations, but in this case the book was a real thriller, and also had some cutting social comment very relevant to the situation in Europe. 

In the days before global warming when we were all worried about an imminent Ice Age. I remember reading that if the Ice Age did come the only two species that would thrive were mankind and the wolf, because both were particularly good at seeking out the weakest and the most vulnerable from a group and destroying them. 

The Boy in the Suitcase follows four main characters whose different story lines come together in a thrilling climax. 

With four subplots to follow the story is a little confusing at the beginning, but very soon the reader realises what is happening, and from then on the tension mounts.

Jan a wealthy Danish business man has agreed to pay for something; Jucas, a Lithuanian body builder wants to settle down with Barbara near Krakow, but first he must control his steroid induced rages and complete one more job. Nina Borg, is a Red Cross nurse, who is an adrenaline junkie and seemingly would rather help refugees in dangerous parts of Africa than look after her own children in comfortable Copenhagen. She is part of a secret network that helps undocumented refugees, and when her old friend Karin asks her to pick up a suitcasel from a left luggage locker in Copenhagen’s Central Station she adds pertinently “You’re always so keen on saving people aren’t you?”.

When Nina drags a suitcase back to her car and looks inside she finds a 3 year-old naked drugged boy. Has he been kidnapped, trafficked and sold ? When she goes to report finding the boy to the police, there is a commotion and she sees a very large very angry crew cut man kicking at a locker. The very same locker from which she had recently removed the suitcase.

But there hadn’t been any money. Every time he thought of the empty locker, fury sent accurate little stabs through him like a nail gun. God, he could have have smashed the bitch’s skull in.

Nina based on her experiences at work in Danish Red Cross Center Fureso aka Coal House Camp  does not trust the authorities to protect the boy. When she finds her friend Karin brutally murdered she knows she must stay on the run away from the very large man.

Meanwhile in Lithuania Sigita Ramoskiene is recovering from a fall down the stairs, that has resulted in a broken arm. Apparently Sigita was drunk even though she does not drink. When she realises that no one knows the location of  her little boy Mikas, and he has not been taken by his father Darius, she feels all the terror that a parent feels in such a situation. Sigita is determined to leave no stone unturned in her search for her child, and begins a journey that will take her back over her past life and forward to Denmark.

Lene Kaaberbol, usually writes fantasy books; Agnete Friis is a journalist, and writes books for children and young adults. They have co-operated brilliantly, with Kaaberol translating The Boy in the Suitcase into English, to produce an excellent and slightly different twist on the standard crime thriller.

The most important factor in a thriller is that it should thrill this most certainly does, and the characters especially the women are well drawn and sympathetic. The authors take us right into the mind of Sigita and we can feel her panic, and her sorrow. Nina is a harder character to like and the contrast in her attitudes to her children with that of Sigita  is perhaps mirrored in the contrast between rich Denmark and poor Lithuania. 

Amidst the excitement of Nina on the run in Denmark, and Sigita’s search for evidence and the suspects in Lithuania, the authors give us a lesson in the realities of open borders between the rich and poor. In the context of the narrative it is not too preachy, just a sharp dose of common sense. 

Nor was it especially difficult to lure Eastern European girls into the country and sell them by the hour in places like Skelbaekgade. A few beatings, a gang rape or two, and a note bearing the address of her family in some Estonian village-that was usually enough to break the most obstinate spirit. 

And the real beauty of it all for the cynical exploiters was that ordinary people didn’t care. Not really. No one had asked the refugees, the prostitutes, the fortune hunters, and the orphans to come knocking on Denmark’s door. No one had invited them, and no one knew how many there were. Crimes committed against them had nothing to do with ordinary people and the usual working of law and order. It was only  dimwit fools like Nina who were unable to achieve the proper sense of detachment.

Powerful stuff, and this could equally apply to England. But I think that when ordinary people raise difficult questions about the level of crime caused by the exploitation of immigrants, they are shouted down by the ruling elites and sections of the media. 

The Boy in the Suitcase is just sort of superb book that has brought Nordic crime fiction to the fore over the past few years. It is a well written thrilling story, blending several sub plots carefully together, featuring complex characters while making us think deeply about the vulnerability of the poor, women and children in our so-called civilized societies. 

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Comments
  1. Norm – Fantastic review, for which thanks. You highlight the main reasons for which this book has been on my “must read soon” TBR list for a few months now. It is long past time to remedy that…

  2. Maxine says:

    Yes, a great review, Norman. I was particularly impressed with the portrayal of Sigita.

  3. I can only echo Margot and Maxine.

    I was so impressed by this book when I read it, especially because so many modern Danish thrillers are exciting, but wildly unrealistic, and with characters I don´t care one bit about. And contrary to many other readers, I liked Nina – despite her flaw.

  4. kathy d. says:

    Norman, fantastic review. You have done the book justice. I agree with every word of it. The women characters are well-drawn. The plot is interesting and exciting. I could not put this book down while I was reading it.

    What you say about the book’s observations about social issues, especially the treatment of women immigrants, the crises caused by the gaps between rich and poor — people and countries — is so true. The crimes caused by the exploitation of women are well described and raise consciousness for the readers.

    The authors have done a superb job here with their character development, expose of social issues, sympathy for women and children who are trafficked and poor. Lots more, too.

    I liked the character of Nina Borg. Though flawed, as are many people, she does the right thing and risks her life for this little boy. Why she cannot cope daily with her own family isn’t clear, but complicated personalities are the stuff of real life and fiction. She’s interesting as a person, too. We want to know more about her background, her thinking, etc.

    I cannot wait for the next book in this series. It’s one I’ll pay for gladly.

  5. Norman says:

    Thanks Margot, Maxine, Dorte and Kathy for your kind comments.
    I did try and get over to potential readers that this is a superb book.

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