THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING by Vidar Sundstøl
University of Minnesota Press; 9/26/17
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The Verdict: Nordic Noir meets Nordic folklore
Scandinavian crime fiction readers, listen up: THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING by Vidar Sundstøl is the must-read you haven't heard of yet. One of the most fresh and original takes on the Nordic Noir genre I've read in ages, Sundstøl's exceptional standalone crime novel weaves together ancient folklore and a modern investigation to brilliant effect. Atmospheric and laced with menace, the story's small-town setting is a character unto itself, while the story's human characters are equally complex and engaging. THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING is masterfully written, intricately plotted, and wholly immersive; in short, it's a must-read for Nordic Noir fans.
On Midsummer Eve in 1985, a young folklore researcher disappears from the village of Eidsborg in the Telemark region of Norway. Exactly thirty years later, the student Cecilie Wiborg goes missing. She too had been researching the old, pagan rituals associated with the 13th-century Eidsborg stave church. And then Knut Abrahamsen, a former police officer from the area, is found drowned in the nearby Tokke River, a presumed suicide since his pockets were filled with stones.
Hearing of the death of his former colleague and friend, private investigator Max Fjellanger feels compelled to leave his long-time home in Florida and return to his native Norway to attend Knut’s funeral. Even though they haven’t spoken in more than three decades, Max is not convinced that Knut killed himself. There are details about the circumstances of his death that just don’t add up. And there seems to be a link to the case of the missing researcher in Telemark, which the two of them had worked together—until threats from a corrupt sheriff put an end to the investigation and to Max’s career on the police force.
This time Max is determined to find out the truth. Reluctantly he finds himself drawn into a dark universe in which ancient superstitions, religious cults, and sinister forces are still very much alive. And the stave church, with its famed wooden statue of Saint Nikuls, is at the center of it all.
Finding an unlikely partner in Tirill Vesterli—a university librarian and single mother who is obsessed with crime novels—Max is plunged into a menacing world of ghostly monks, severed pigs’ heads, and mythic rites, all somehow connected to Midsummer Eve, which is fast approaching. As Max and Tirill quickly learn, it’s a misconception that the past is past—the truth is that it’s never over.
When considering books for review on Crime by the Book, one of the things that's always in the back of my mind is the desire to find a book that pushes the envelope and does something a bit different. "Different" is an intentionally vague qualification: I'm not looking for any one thing in particular, but rather for an author whose book brings an unexpected, perhaps previously unexplored angle to crime fiction. To make a long story short, I found this in spades in THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING. Author Sundstøl is not only a masterful crime writer - although he is very much that as well. He's also adept at weaving Norwegian folklore and legends into a modern crime story. It's this angle of THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING that elevates the story from a good Nordic Noir mystery to a really great story of Norwegian legends and their collision with modern day society.
THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING deals heavily in folklore—a topic which Sundstøl represents authentically in his crime novel. While some elements of the folklore represented in this story are of course fictionalized, the Eidsborg stave church, the ancient building at the core of this story's mystery, is real – and it's stunning (see the photow below). THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING is one of those books where the setting and place seem to take on a life of their own. While reading Sundstøl's vivid and atmospheric descriptions of Norway's Telemark region, I felt myself developing such clear mental pictures of it—and I was thrilled to discover afterwards (thanks to Google) that Sundstøl's writing conjures up the region with remarkable accuracy.
I was even more excited when I stepped back and recognized the success with which Sundstøl has branched out from many of his crime writing peers, who set their books in Nordic cities. Rather than placing his mystery in the immediately appealing setting of a big city like Oslo, Sundstøl explores the nuances and tensions of small town life by placing his mystery in Norway's Telemark region - and he does it with great success. No, this story won't deliver chase scenes through city streets, but it will deliver a full immersion in the unique culture of this region. The complete package provided by THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING - the folklore, the small town mystery, the Nordic sensibilities - come together to deliver a wholly unique and original read.
But this book's setting and folklore element aren't the only ways it stands out from the pack. Its characters are charming and engaging, and represent a deviation from your standard police officer or detective cast. THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING follows two somewhat unlikely sleuths: one, a widower and private investigator, and two, a detective-novel loving librarian. These characters offset one another brilliantly - it's easy to slip into their world and feel right at home in their dynamic. I particularly loved that Sundstøl gives our librarian character an opportunity to use the deductive skills she's learned through years of reading crime fiction to solve a real life mystery! Hasn't every crime reader imagined doing just that?
THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING was an instant hit for me, and I can confidently recommend it for readers looking to be drawn into an atmospheric mystery of small town life and ancient secrets. Nordic Noir fans will love the story’s atmosphere and pacing; readers of crime fiction as a whole will love its offbeat characters and balance of modern investigation and ancient legend. This is a fall 2017 Nordic Noir must read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 280 pages
Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press (September 26, 2017)
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