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Chilly Scandinavian reads for hot summer day

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What better time than a July with record-breaking heat waves to read chilly Scandinavian crime novels?

If the air conditioning just isn’t giving you the goosebumps you crave, try a suspenseful mystery by one of these authors from the often dark and bitterly cold countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

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These novels focus on the dark, frightening underbelly of what we usually imagine as bright and happy (and probably boring) Scandinavian societies. As our resident expert on this genre says, “these books aren’t for the faint of heart,” but if you like your mysteries gritty and intense, they are just the thing for you.

If you haven’t heard of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” you’ve probably been living under a fjord for the past few years. It began as the “Män som hatar kvinnor” (“Men Who Hate Women”) in Larsson’s native Sweden, was translated to English in 2008, became a massive bestseller, and inspired the production of movie trilogies in both Swedish and English languages. Larsson’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is a deeply wounded young woman, filled with righteous rage and body piercing. When Lisbeth, a computer hacker, meets up with former journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve a mysterious disappearance, they form an unlikely team, and find themselves depending on each other in deeply dangerous situations. Their story continues in “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and concludes with “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

Like Mikael Blomkvist in Larsson’s trilogy, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon is a journalist who is drawn into dangerous situations when the subjects of her inquiry begin to turn their attention to her. Marklund gives Annika believable strengths and weaknesses, while taking her on thrilling chases and suspenseful stakeouts. She works hard, but also feels guilty about the husband and children she leaves at home at all hours while getting her stories. Marklund’s name may also be familiar to you as the co-author of James Patterson’s “Postcard Killers” novel.

Henning Mankell is best known in the United States for his suspenseful novels featuring Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander, which have been turned into the fantastically atmospheric “Masterpiece Mystery” series starring Kenneth Branagh. A common characteristic among the protagonists in Scandinavian crime fiction is that they are very flawed human beings, and Wallander is no different. He is depressed and has diabetes, and his father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. We root for his success in spite of this, or perhaps because we see our own faults in him.

For those of you who associate Norwegian culture with lefse and rosemaling, author Jo Nesbo will come as a surprise. Nesbo’s police inspector, Harry Hole (pronounced “HEU-leh” in Norwegian), deals with the most harrowing criminal cases Oslo can produce. In “The Snowman,” the seventh novel in the series, Harry begins to suspect the recent disappearance of a young mother is linked to a threatening letter sent to him months before. More research reveals several gruesome trails leading back to what appears to be the same suspect. Nesbo’s themes are very dark, but few authors can hold you on the edge of your seat like he can.

Finnish author Matti Joensuu had only begun to see his works translated into other languages before his untimely death last year. He was awarded Finland’s State Literature Prize in 1982, and several other awards for his series about policeman Timo Harjunpää. Joensuu’s novels tend to revolve around social justice and legal ethics, and his protagonist is able to remain more kind and humane, perhaps due to the fact that he still lives with his wife and children, when so many in this genre seem to walk alone. Harjunpää’s story begins with “The Stone Murders.”

One of the authors who seems to be mentioned everywhere today (not without a bit of mispronunciation) is Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason. His forensic thrillers weave a tangled web of clues, suspects and witnesses who police inspector Erlendur meticulously unravels by the end of the novel. Arnaldur’s best known work, “Jar City,” is a good place to start.

Finally, our tour ends in Denmark, with a co-authored book that is the first in a promising series. “The Boy in the Suitcase” by Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbol introduces a nurse named Nina Borg who feels compelled to help disadvantaged people, to her — and her family’s — own detriment. This does not make her naive, however. She is as clever and street-smart as the other detectives in this genre. This novel raises an important question for those in careers where they are exposed to all kinds of human tragedy: Is it possible to maintain a balance of caring about the victims while also keeping your own personal life and family intact?

Speaking of Scandinavia, but certainly on the brighter side, on Monday, July 23, the library is hosting Eric Dregni, author of “Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America” for a Brown Bag Lunch event at noon. Find out the story behind some of the knick-knacks and collectibles passed down to you from your Norse ancestors. Bring your own lunch to enjoy while you listen, but please leave your lutefisk at home!

Our very last Brown Bag Lunch of the summer features Alice Palace, an illustrator and author of a 10-book series of children’s books about a little boy named Marvin. Alice is a resident of Emily, Minn., and will talk about her experiences writing and illustrating books, greeting cards, and gifts of all kinds on Monday, July 30 at noon at the library.

The library’s At Home Service is growing by leaps and bounds, and we are looking for more volunteers to help out with delivering library materials to people all over the Brainerd Lakes area. We are especially in need of individuals willing to deliver to the Pillager or Garrison areas once a month. I have been told many times by patrons that they couldn’t do without this program, and volunteers have said their visits with fellow book lovers are the highlight of their day. To find out more about this free, personalized program, please call me at 829-5574 or email sroutreach@krls.org.

LAUREL M. HALL is the senior outreach coordinator for Kitchigami Regional Library System.

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