APRIL 15, 2015
LANCE HANSEN is a forest cop, a police officer whose beat happens to be in the Superior National Forest. He’s overweight and drinks Mesabi Red, brewed by the Lake Superior Brewing Company. He snacks on Dove chocolates and reads the little messages printed on the insides of the wrappers. He listens to Car Talk as he drives around checking fishing licenses and campgrounds. He is divorced from his Ojibwe wife. He loves his kid, who he sees every other weekend. And like most of the people around him, Lance is a descendant of Norwegian immigrants; when he finds a traumatized man, blood-smeared and naked but for white running shoes, he is surprised to realize that the man is muttering in the language of his forebears. It’s incomprehensible to him — until he understands a single word: kjærlighet — Norwegian for “love.”
So begins The Land of Dreams, the first volume in Vidar Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy. Tiina Nunnally’s skilled translation introduced the novel, and Sundstøl, to English-language readers in 2013.
In a choice that may surprise many readers, Sundstøl did not set his trilogy in Norway: it takes place in northern Minnesota. That might seem random. But to the many Minnesotans whose forebears emigrated from Scandinavia to this wintry landscape that reminded them of home, particularly Norway, it will make perfect sense. For anyone who understands that this history is one of the forces shaping Minnesota today, Sundstøl’s books will make even more sense, because, as Peter Høeg did in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Sundstøl conjures not only the richness of a unique landscape, but also the dense and painful history of European colonialism and its modern-day sequelae — including an excellent short account of colonization’s effects on the Ojibwe, who still live in that part of Minnesota. From this he builds a story that ties together crimes of the past and present.
It is no accident that Sundstøl makes his hero, Lance Hansen, an amateur local historian. The author himself spent two years living on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and he is a fine observer of ordinary folks as well as of a landscape that is at once familiar and intimately meaningful to those who move through it. As a writer, Sundstøl has a light touch, a knack for weaving into the narrative details that will turn out to be important later without telegraphing their importance. Deservedly, The Land of Dreams was Norway’s nominee for the Glass Key award for best Scandinavian crime novel. It is a finely plotted, intelligent, dense, and sensitive novel that gets increasingly complex all the way to the end.
And then … it doesn’t really end. In fact, its last line is, “This is just the beginning, he thought.”
The second novel in the trilogy, Only the Dead (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), is a typical middle child: dreamy, discontented, not sure what it wants to be. It is not a typical crime novel.
Most of Only the Dead takes place in the minds of a couple of characters, and much of it during two long days of deer hunting in a cold forest. It is a daring way to follow its more traditional, tightly plotted predecessor; Only the Dead moves more slowly and slips between worlds. In a genre that usually depends on hard facts, Sundstøl has the courage and the confidence to stray far from the beaten path, visiting both the psychological and the spiritual dream-realms. Where The Land of Dreams was built on the hard surfaces of daily reality, Only the Dead strays into the more nebulous realm of the inner life, of secrets, suspicion, and dreams. Or in Lance’s case, a psychological desert where there are no dreams at all.
In fact, Lance hasn’t dreamed for seven years. He misses dreaming; misses it more than physical touch. He muses on the role of dreams in traditional Ojibwe culture, the way they are accepted as conveying meaning about the dreamer’s life. His last dream was vivid, with him standing at the deepest point of Lake Superior, perhaps a few steps from death. He mulls it over often. He wonders whether he has stopped dreaming because he allowed this dream, heavy with a significance that remains opaque to him, “to go unused.” He eats a Dove chocolate and reads the little motto printed inside the wrapper: “Only the dead do not dream.” And this overweight, beer-drinking forest cop wonders: what is the divide between dreams and death?
Only the Dead offers a lot of information that doesn’t change the game, but subtly advances the plot. The internal dialogue of Lance’s ancestor Thormod Olson seems superfluous; surely any reader would have guessed more or less the course of events it describes. But that is a small complaint. It is a testament to the author’s skill that for long stretches, during which very little happens in the outside world, he manages not just to maintain, but to increase the tension. Crimes of the past encroach on the present moment.
To the author’s credit, it is not nature that menaces; while the cold and bleak Scandinavian landscape has often been used to good metaphorical effect, Sundstøl doesn’t take that easy path. In Only the Dead it is men who are threats, to themselves and each other.
The final chapter of Sundstøl’s trilogy, The Ravens, is now available in English. For those readers wondering which The Ravens would resemble most, The Land of Dreams or Only the Dead, the answer is quickly obvious: the latter. The third book opens with several short scenes that feel disconnected and disorienting. But the reader who has read the previous volumes of the trilogy knows that Sundstøl is not afraid to challenge her by slipping in and out of different realities or states of awareness. Gradually the pieces come together — or do they?
As in Only the Dead, in The Ravens it can be hard to tell whether, for example, Lance Hansen is actually walking out on the ice of the physical Lake Superior, or whether he is in a dream world. Is the wolf on the highway real, or a symbol guarding its meal of road-killed deer inside Lance’s psyche? It is rather risky for a mystery writer to build his plot on slippery states of mind rather than with the supposed facts of DNA and fingerprint evidence, clever interrogations and telephone surveillance. Either way, it is all part of the process — Lance’s, Sundstøl’s, and the reader’s — of coming to knowledge. In this respect, the Minnesota Trilogy may be more psychologically realistic than most mystery novels.
The Minnesota Trilogy is challenging to readers expecting a more formulaic mystery, but its author’s eccentric choices are deliberate, and do a great deal of work in creating the meaning that ultimately resolves the plot. Sundstøl’s passing references to the history of the native presence in the region and Lance’s interest in Ojibwe culture seem to be mere set-dressing, but emerge as pivotal to the plot. The seriousness with which Lance regards the history and culture, and the respect he accords his Ojibwe ex-father-in-law’s cryptic pronouncements, are essential not only to his character, but also to his ability to solve the murders. Similarly, the dream sequences and his repeated visions of the ghost of Swamper Caribou, which might test the tolerance of a reader more accustomed to action-packed, matter-of-fact urban plotlines, shape not only Lance’s understanding but the reader’s as well.
Sundstøl fearlessly presents his readers with a pretty unattractive protagonist. Overweight, ham-handed in his social interactions, awkward with his dysfunctional family, Lance Hansen is no Lisbeth Salander; on the contrary, he is the antithesis of her sharp-witted, sexually confident urbanite. He does not leap to conclusions, he gropes, and he is wrong most of the time. But he is dogged, and persistence pays.
Lance’s fumbling hypothesizing is not always convincing; nor is his strange Norwegian “vacation” or the sudden affection of his high school sweetheart. More might have been made of his friendship with the Norwegian detective, who seems remarkably incurious when Lance asks him for some underhanded help. But on the other hand, Sundstøl so deftly weaves social isolation, poverty, racism, and homophobia into his story and his plot that they pass almost unremarked even while they remain absolutely integral. They are facts and they are a kind of evidence that helps Lance finally crack the case.
The Minnesota Trilogy will hopefully be reissued at some point in a single volume, because although each of the books can stand alone, the arc of the mystery is only completed by reading all three. By the time the real author of the crime uncovered in The Land of Dreams is revealed at the very end of The Ravens, a variety of people have been accused and plenty of other crimes and misdemeanors laid bare, and it almost doesn’t matter any more who killed the Norwegian canoeist. What is more important is why, and what Lance can learn about — and make of — himself in the process. It is that mystery that really compels the reader through the bleak and beautiful landscape of the Minnesota Trilogy.