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Silences say so much in Vidar Sundstøl’s tense North Shore thriller, ‘Only the Dead’

It’s the second volume in his Minnesota Trilogy, which was published earlier in Norwegian.

Vidar Sundstøl, says Minnesota’s North Shore feels American — with “a weird Scandinavian flavor to it. Something about the way people speak. And don't speak.”
Photo by Paal Audestad

Cold, moody weather. Rocky shorelines. Ski trails through the pines. The surnames on street signs, fish dinners and saunas. There are plenty of little things along Minnesota’s North Shore that feel familiar to visiting or expat Scandinavians, but for the most part, says Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl, the region feels American — with “a weird Scandinavian flavor to it. Something about the way people speak. And don’t speak.”

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It’s those silences that say so much in Sundstøl’s tense thriller, “Only the Dead” (University of Minnesota Press), the second volume in his Minnesota Trilogy. These three slim, quietly unsettling novels follow Lance Hansen, a U.S. Forest Service officer who can’t move past a violent murder he discovered in the first installment of the series, “The Land of Dreams.”

In that book, Hansen encounters two Norwegian tourists at Father Baraga’s Cross, a North Shore historical marker near the shoreline of Lake Superior. One has been brutally murdered, and the other is covered in blood and unable to speak more than one word: “Love.” Hansen tries to untangle the story behind this scene, while his interest in local history leaves him contemplating a coincidence: An Ojibwe man was killed a century ago on the same spot. And deeply troubling is one more detail. His brother Andy was near the spot on the day of the murder.

Sundstøl wrote the books while living on the North Shore.

Lived in Two Harbors

“My wife got a job with the Forest Service at the Tofte ranger station. I just tagged along,” says the writer, who married an American and was previously living in Lexington, Kentucky. The setting became a vivid backdrop to his mystery, with many places taken directly from his life and routines. “We lived in Two Harbors for a year. In the very same house that Andy Hansen and his family live in in the books. Then we moved to Lutsen, not far from Isak Hansen’s hardware store. In the books, Lance lives on the hill behind the store.”

During his time in Minnesota, Sundstøl became a student of regional and Ojibwe history, and an observer of the unique position federal and state agents hold in the area. “Where we lived they pretty much were the community. A lot of the people up there work for the Forest Service. It was a great community spirit,” he says. But there are tensions, too.

His books touch on regional issues, including mining, hunting, relations between Natives and a white population that is also divided into descendants of Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian immigrants to create a complex environment in which everyone holds a little something back, and observes each other from opposing positions. Even family ties are tenuous, as the brothers Andy and Lance inch around great unspoken and unspeakable things — while armed. In the riveting end scene, the brothers set out on their annual deer hunt as a storm filters through the darkening woods. 

Popular in Norway

“The Land of Dreams” won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime novel, and Sundstøl’s work is enormously popular in Norway. Although he speaks English, Tiina Nunally translated the books for English-speaking audiences. “Speaking a language more or less fluently doesn’t mean you can write novels in it,” he says. “Tiina Nunally is the best translator there is from Scandinavian languages into English.” [Nunally is best known for her translation of Sigrid Undset’s works; Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature.]

“Right now is a very good time to be a Norwegian crime writer. Norwegians too are crazy about crime novels. It’s The Genre over here right now, at least commercially,” he says. “There is also a very strong tradition here for reading crime fiction during the Easter holiday, and many authors have their mystery books published just before Easter.”

The third book, “The Ravens,” is available now in Norwegian. It comes out here in April 2015 — just around Easter.  But the timing of this release, just before deer hunting season, and just before brutal, beautiful winter covers up all our tracks, is just right.