Friday, July 10, 2015

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

I first came upon Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen's work through her blog, djskrimiblog. Dorte isn't as active in the reviewing world as she once was, having moved on to spending more time writing mysteries rather than reviewing them, but the archives are still there if you want to see what she was up to a couple of years ago. Although a large number of her reviews are in English and feature American and British books, being Danish herself she reviews Danish crime novels as well, sometimes in Danish if they don't have an English translation. 

It came as something of a surprise, then, to find that her first novel--at least the first one I'm aware of--was actually a very British cozy. As I wrote in my review at the time, this one is for fans of Midsomer Murders and others in the village mystery subgenre. 

Her next mystery was a very different kettle of fish. Anna Märklin's Family Chronicles shares some characteristics in common with the book under discussion here, as it has a historical element woven in with the contemporary. 

Crystal Nights begins in Berlin in 1938, on the infamous Krystallnacht, or "night of broken glass", when Nazi storm troopers and their sympathizers went on a rampage through many German and Austrian cities. The destruction and mayhem force the Stein family to flee the country. But tragedy finds them on their journey anyway. 

The story now jumps into the future, but a future that is already in our past. We are now in Kalum, a small Danish town, in 1967. Krystallnacht is now history, so much so that they are actually studying it in school. Neils Haugaard would rather be studying Kennedy's U.S. space program. He's also missing his friend Lars-Ole, who seems to be cutting school. 

But all is not well with Lars-Ole and in fact he's disappeared. We learn early on that, in fact, he's dead, but no one in Kalum knows that. Even his mother isn't aware that he's missing at first, and only gradually does anyone realize that he is not in any of the places he's assumed to be. More than one team of policemen will be baffled by this situation, and in many ways it takes the steadfast search of Lars-Ole's friend Neils to finally unravel this mystery. 

This was a very absorbing tale, even though we have a piece or two of information that the townfolk of Kalum don't have. For an American, the ways of a little Danish backwater are interesting just in and of themselves--for example, where the telephone exchange was in a little town like this. Watching Neils work his way through the possibilities of what happened to his friend is compelling (the police aren't bad, though maybe just a bit lazy), but what is perhaps most interesting to me is the way that Lars-Ole's spirit hovers over the book, so that you get to know him as well. He's not a ghostly presence or anything like that, but all the same it's true that it's really he and Neils working together who solve the case. 

I'll close with some notes I found about the Danish edition at GoodReads:

The Danish edition of the book, Krystalnætter, won a national competition in 2013. Judge and editor Lene Dalmejer explains her choice:

”Crystal Nights” is a highly commendable historical suspense novel that captures the reader from the opening phrase. It opens in Berlin in 1938 on the Night of the Broken Glass, and a Jewish family is preparing for a perilous escape to Scandinavia. Subsequently the story moves 30 years ahead to 1967, to the small town Kalum in Northern Jutland.
... and soon tales of destiny emerge, much larger than tiny Kalum. The novel is well-turned, and the plot is spot-on. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen writes in a fashion that almost makes you forget you are reading. This is in itself a huge achievement. The language breathes freely, and we delve into the Denmark of the 1960s without any discord whatsoever. It is, in short, a first-rate novel!


  1. What a lovely and thorough review!
    I'll brag about this one on Facebook tomorrow ;)