This has been a season for classic characters being reimagined. Recently we have seen the new version of Peter Pan and Wendy, which is ace. (Full disclosure: a relative is in it, and they are, objectively, brilliant.) We’ve gone to see a musical version of Brief Encounter which was very good and stumbled across a 1970s TV remake which was appalling. The thing about remixes is that they give you a fixed point and then subvert both that point and everything around them. They can be amazingly creative. If you don’t like them as much as the original, you still have the original. And if they make you reassess the original or understand it better, then you’re quids in. Gabriel Præst, the lead character of A Death in Denmark by Amulya Malladi is a case in point: with his sharp wit and eye for the ladies he’s quite the Scandi Philip Marlowe. This new novel, with a hugely modern ethical dilemma right at its heart but with Kierkegaard for company, plays with the form in a way that’s enjoyable, thought-provoking and troubling.
The plot is this: a refugee from Iraq is successfully tried for the murder of a far-right politician (from the equivalent of the Freedom Party, if you know your Borgen). Step forward Gabriel Præst who agrees to look into it because his ex asked him to, and he still holds a candle. Præst’s quest for the truth takes him to Berlin and back in time to the German occupation of Denmark. These days, occupied countries are having to reckon with the extent to which there was collaboration with the Nazis: it seems that the politician was tracking down a double agent who was responsible for 20 Jews being sent to a concentration camp and their Danish protectors shot.
This is a topic that requires respect, empathy and a serious eye to potential exploitation, and Malladi understands this completely. She doesn’t skimp on the violence (from Russian mafia to a jealous fiancé) that accompanies Præst right through to the end yet I thoroughly enjoyed this thriller. Partly that’s because the core subject is considered appropriately and partly because of Præst himself. He’s a part-time jazz musician and foodie who likes quoting Kierkegaard and lining up serial romantic episodes. He’s just the right side of pretentious and you can have some fun leaning in to his cultural pursuits. I personally wouldn’t go drink-for-drink with him, but I did listen to Interplay by Bill Evans. (In fact, I’ve put it on again now.) He’s got a good moral core and other than holding the aforementioned candle for his ex, Leila, seems to be as content as a man with frequent appointments with his therapists can possibly be. More to the point, he lets us in to his thought processes so we don’t feel that we’re having to play games with the author to work out who really killed Sanne Melgaard.
We meet charismatic lead characters all the time: I’m reminded of Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrieri in particular but also the work of Kjell Ola Dahl, Thomas Enger and Gunnar Staalesen. Præst is perhaps more earthy than these writers’ characters and his wisecracks move the thing along but also set us up happily for the moral dilemma that sets up the ending (about which more below). Most of these Marlowe-like characters are men and at times I wonder, given the increasing visibility of strong women in Nordic Noir, whether a female protagonist might have freed us a bit from the format. But I guess the point of a remix is knowing which of the original rendition to retain.
It’s probably the ending that makes this novel really stand out: a masterpiece in ambiguity and a very different approach to the sins of the 1940s: it forces the reader to reappraise our views, avoids cliche and manages to be uplifting and depressing at the same time.
More from Præst please, and more from Malladi: a writer with style who isn’t shy to challenge her reader.
Thanks to William Morrow for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.