Friday, January 12, 2018

Nixed in Norway: Death in a Cold Climate (1980), by Robert Barnard

not the land of the midnight sun
As we enjoy, if that's the right word, our first snowfall of the season in my particular neck of the woods and I eat some Icelandic yogurt with cloudberries, I see that the inoffensive country of Norway has popped up in American political news.  And what did Norway do to deserve this unsought distinction?

It was divulged the other day that the United States president (for lack, unfortunately, of another word) recently opined to a group of American congresspeople that the US needed more immigrants from Norway and fewer (apparently none would be his preference) from "shithole"--his word!--countries like Haiti and those comprising the continent of Africa.

Back in the 19th century, when the president's paternal grandfather--a man who was, like many of my ancestors, of German origin and who apparently went originally by the name of Drumpf--came to the United States, the US did get a lot of immigrants from Norway. 

Norwegian immigration to the US peaked in 1882, according to the Seattle Times, when nearly 30,000 Norwegian settlers came to American shores. Conversely in 2016--the year, incidentally, that the current American president was elected--only 1114 Norwegians immigrated to the US, about 500 fewer than the number of Americans who left the US that year to settle in Norway.

Contrary to what crime fiction tells us
Scandinavia does not lead the world in
serial killers--reason for happiness!
World Atlas lists the clear leader in this
bloody arena as the United States,
followed by England, South Africa,
Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany
Australia, Russia and India.
"Oil-rich Norway," according to the Seattle Times article, "ranks fourth in the world for GDP per person....boasts a universal health-care system, low unemployment, and $1 trillion 'rainy day' fund fueled by its offshore oil and gas resources that helps pay for generous pensions and other welfare programs."

"Last year, Norway soared to the top spot of the World Happiness Report.  The US was 14th in the latest ranking, down from No. 13 in 2016, and over the years Americans steadily have been rating themselves less happy."

If any Americans (or anyone else in the world, for that matter), feeling a tad glum about the state of their country lately, want to escape to Norway, but can't afford the trip, there's always, as there ever is, escape fiction.  And for readers of this blog, I presume, escape fiction means a nice murder tale. 

Yet today, in regard to Scandinavia, murder means so-called Nordic Noir, like the stuff written by world bestseller Jo Nesbo, whose latest opus, The Thirst, is a jolly little number described in the New York Times, where it has been listed as one of the best crime novels of 2017, as being about "a serial killer who stalks his victims on Tinder, rips out their throats with dentures made of metal spikes and drinks their blood."

To which I say, to quote Lucy from Peanuts: blech!  If I wanted that sort of thing I'd just read Edgar Wallace, who offers criminal thrills without all the disgusting gore.

cold indeed yet much cozier than
Jo Nesbo's crime thriller
But if you want a nice, classic deductive mystery set in Norway, how about Death in a Cold Climate (1980)?  It's a nearly four-decade-old crime novel by one of the great figures of the Silver Age of detective fiction, the late, and by me much lamented, British crime writer Robert Barnard (1936-2013).

I assume the title is an allusion by Barnard--who, at the time the the novel was written, taught literature in Norway at the University of Tromso, which had opened a few years earlier in 1972--to Nancy Mitford's popular novel Love in a Cold Climate (1949). 

Happily the title was allowed to stand by Barnard's capricious American publishers, who in the early years of his mystery writing career apparently often deemed Barnard's titles too subtle for American taste.

Thus Posthumous Papers became Death of a Literary Widow, Unruly Son Death of a Mystery Writer, Mother's Boys Death of a Perfect Mother, Little Victims School for Murder.  But then "Death," after all, is in the title of Death in a Cold Climate.  There's no question with this title that what we have a murder mystery here!

Aside from any allusion to Mitford's novel, Barnard's title for the novel is well-chosen as the story is structured around the chilled climate of Tromso, a Norwegian city located north of the Arctic Circle.  Back when Barnard lived there the population of Tromso was around 45,000 but the city since has increased to about 75,000, around a fifth of whom are college students.  But even 45,000 people is an ample enough number to provide suspects for a murder, as novelist Arnaldur Indrioason, who has made a lucrative career out of a critically-acclaimed detective series set in Iceland (pop. currently about 332,000), could tell you.

Barnard's narrative begins a few days before Christmas, during the polar night (when the sun is below the horizon), and ends the next year near the summer, when the midnight sun emerges and some thaw has commenced.  (Average high's in Tromso in December and May are, respectively, 31 and 47 degrees Fahrenheit.)

polar night in Tromso
the Arctic Cathedral, mentioned several times in Barnard's novel, is seen at lower left
By Osopolar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Not surprisingly Barnard's novel tends to focus on Tromso's Anglo-American foreign-born community: people, like he was, connected to the college, or to the developing petroleum industry, made much of by the Seattle Times in its discussion of the sources of Norwegian contentment. Yet there are significant Norwegian-born characters too.

The murder victim in the novel is an English "boy" named Martin Forsyth--a young man in his twenties, fair-haired, "but with a rich, golden fairness that was not Norwegian."  Inspector Fagermo, the methodical but not hugely memorable Norwegian policeman investigating Martin's murder, makes a side trip to England to interview the boy's parents, but outside of that errand the story takes place entirely in Norway.

The novel devotes the first chapter to the last hours in the life of the shortly to be murdered English boy.  It is made clear that on the day of Martin's death he is on his way to some sort of assignation--but who is he meeting, and what does the meeting concern?  These are the questions that concern the Norwegian police after Martin's body in unearthed from the deep snow a few months later by a joyfully inquisitive dog being taken out on a walk by his master.  (Ruth Rendell has a scene like this in one her her later Wexford books, Not in the Flesh, when a truffle-hunting dog digs up not a truffle but an odoriferous human corpse.)

one of Tromso's attractive older wooden homes plays a role in Death in a Cold Climate

Climate seems to me one of Barnard's more sober novels, which may be a plus or minus depending on your temperament.  I missed some of the wicked humor that is abundant in Barnard's English village tales.  However, Barnard does get in some amusing shots (as well as some coarse physical insults) at a truly horrid Norwegian literature professor who enjoys belittling the students he teaches in order to build up his own sense of self-esteem.

As I have discussed before
--see my review of Barnard's first crime novel, Death of an Old Goat (1974)--Barnard seems really to have loathed academia and must have been very happy indeed when his success with mystery writing allowed him to leave the profession for good before he turned fifty.

Death in a Cold Climate may not be as amusing as Death of an Old Goat, but Norway comes off much better at Barnard's hands than Australia, the setting of Goat and the country where Barnard, a native Englishman, had taught before going to Tromso.  Outside of the food, Barnard doesn't seem to have taken a dislike to things Norwegian, as he seemingly did to all things Australian.  The result is a far more sober--and far less fun (at least if you're not a sensitive Australian)--novel than Death of an Old Goat.

As a mystery Death in a Cold Climate boasts one excellent piece of misdirection, the sort of thing that brings to my mind the adjective Christiesque.  Among his generation of British mystery writers, Robert Barnard may have been the most openly admiring of Agatha Christie (certainly more so than was Ruth Rendell), and it shows in occasional flashes of brilliant technique, of which Climate offers one of the earlier instances.  So try out the book, you should enjoy the trip.


  1. "Serial colors" in your sidebar threw me for a second till I saw the invisible hand of spell-correction at play...

  2. I read this one back in high school when I was hooked on Barnard. Don't remember much about it but I enjoyed learning about Norwegian culture. I think it was kind of funny too. Am I remembering that right? Barnard has a dry wit that has always appealed to me especially when I was a smart ass teenager.

    1. Yes, you're right, though it was actually more of a sober police procedural (Scandinavia seems to have that effect upon people) compared to some of his from around the same time. But there's definitely some barbed humor too, especially when he writes about academics!

  3. I'm just like John, above - read it many years ago, and remember it as being very funny and a little bit caustic. I'm sure I have it on my shelves, will look for it and read it again!

  4. Thanks for the review - the comparison with Christie certainly piqued my interest. :)