Scatter Her Ashes is the follow up novel that confirms Bakkied as a distinct voice in Nordic noir and as a writer with staying power. 2019’s I Will Miss You Tomorrow was a stunning debut, a novel that took me by surprise. I thought I might like it from the blurb but had no idea just how much I would enjoy it. From the lively, witty opening it just got better and better and wound up being one of my favourite books of the year. As I said when I reviewed the book at the time; I‘d been getting a bit blasé about Nordic crime fiction, there was and still is a lot of stuff being published that was just so-so, copy cat, or not very original. My faith was restored by Bakkeid’s exceptional psychological thriller. I was a only couple of pages into this second Thorkild Aske thriller before I recognised all the things that I liked so much about the first book were here too. Scatter Her Ashes has rich blend of ingredients to savour; humour, an edgy and unusual mystery, a superbly drawn portrait of the central character, a perfectly pitched setting and an original and intriguing storytelling style.
Thorkild Aske is a hero even more screwed up than the usual dysfunctional detective; he’s an ex-cop, he’s responsible for the death of his wife in a car crash, he’s spent time in jail for his career cockup that preceded that and he’s on a cocktail of drugs for his depression that would put a 300lb gorilla into a coma. If you add to that the trauma of his first case as a PI when released from prison, (the subject of I Will Miss You Tomorrow), you might wonder how he functions at all but he does and when the chips are down Aske comes alive.
In Scatter Her Ashes Aske is trying to get his act together again. His psychiatrist, Ulf, has been altering Aske’s meds and now he’s putting his foot down and taking them away. He’ll help Aske cope, even get him a new job, albeit temporary, if Aske is prepared to give up on the hard core drugs. Aske agrees, which is a bit of a surprise for two reasons. Firstly, the last job Aske had nearly got him killed and Ulf was behind him getting that, and, secondly, Aske loves his drugs. Still onward and upward; Aske is about to get a job that became available when the incumbent got himself shot dead – unconnected or coincidence?
Scatter Her Ashes opens on Robert Riverholt’s last day as a consultant on police related matters to the best selling queen of Scandi-noir, Milla Lind. Lind always seems a bit unsure of herself, her agent and publisher always upbeat. Riverholt has just gone over the latest chapters in the new novel and everyone seems happy with the way the book is shaping up. Riverholt has something to discuss with Lind but that’s for later, for now the meeting breaks up and Riverholt leaves. It’s outside in the street in the daylight he’s shot dead. Milla Lind’s creative urges take a dive, it’ll be a few months before she’s back on track.
So a few months later Thorkild Aske meets Iljana, his personal advisor, at the Klubbgata job centre in Stavanger. Apart from the job that caused a near death experience in Tromso there isn’t a lot of demand for a ex-con-cop out there. Aske and Ulf have been speaking, they decided he no longer wants to claim work assessment allowance, it’s time it go for the permanent disability benefit. The job centre will start the ball rolling on the process, even though Iljana doesn’t have a high opinion of Aske, first there needs to be a neuropsychological evaluation, the process will take a while. Ulf’s support for Aske has always been conditional, so he’s serious about no more heavy pills and he advises Aske to keep a low profile until everything is sorted out. In order for Aske to keep busy he has an idea, through his psychologist connections Ulf has found Aske a temporary job; ten weeks as a consultant to world renowned crime author Milla Lind. Ulf is always setting Aske tasks and goals, he has to come to dinner with Ulf and his wife Doris. A pleasant evening where they analyse Aske and discuss his sexual dysfunction. Fortunately, next day he gets to head to Oslo to meet the author Milla Lind’s people. It goes well, and soon he is on the way north to her writer’s retreat. Now’s a good time to learn a little bit more about Lind’s books, (ten million copies sold!):
August Mugabe is the detective hero of her novels. His wife has tried to kill him twice or maybe it’s three times, that’s up for debate, (Ulf and Doris couldn’t agree when they filled Aske in on the books). The new book, the last in the series, goes back to the beginning, before August met his wife. One of the plot strands involves girls going missing from a residential care home. This is based on a real incident that happened last autumn when two girls ran away and are believed to have headed for Ibiza. The police have no trace on the girls.
As Aske starts working for Lind the straightforward role of consultant becomes more complex. As they begin talking to people it feels less like background for the latest novel and more like interrogations for the case. Everyone is being cagey about what actually happened to Riverholt, apparently he was shot by his wife when she found out he wanted to leave her, but is it as simple as that? Aske can’t help feeling it has more to do with this case and why is Milla Lind so interested in the case of the two missing girls?
There’s plenty of humour in the novel and it’s richly entertaining, but it’s also a dark psychological story. Thorkild Aske is haunted by the death of Frei, and the car accident he caused, he is physically and mentally scarred. Frei is the reason he agreed to investigate the disappearance of Rasmus in the first book and is still keen to be distracted by work in this one. Asks is looking for atonement and acceptance, maybe even redemption? Thorkild Aske is a great new flawed detective, (it’s as much about what goes on inside his head as the action around him).
There’s plenty of clever plotting and I think this elevates Bakkied into the ranks of the best Scandi-noir writers club. I would happily recommend Scatter Her Ashes to dedicated fans of dark noirish crime fiction, to fans of the psychological thriller, and, equally, to someone who wants to find out why Scandi-noir has such a big reputation. There’s an energy and inventiveness here that shows just how fresh, innovative and relevant the crime genre can be. As Bakkeid grew up in the rugged landscape of the north of the Norway the setting is beautifully and atmospherically realised. A powerful and exhilarating novel.
Translated by Anne Bruce.
Review by Paul Burke
Personal read 4½*
Group read 4*
Raven Books, hardback, ISBN 9781526610795, 29/10/20