Arctic crimes: Olivier Truc’s Forty Days without Shadow (Lapland)

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow, trans. by Louise Rogers LaLaurie (Trapdoor 2014)

Opening lines: It was the most extraordinary day of the year, pregnant with the hopes of humanity. Tomorrow, the sun would be reborn.

The prize-winning novel Forty Days without Shadow came my way as a submission for the Petrona Award. Although by a French author, it’s eligible due to its Scandinavian setting and its publication in English translation (our slightly quirky rules allow some unusual works to be considered for the prize, which is highly welcome in my view).

The author – journalist and TV producer Olivier Truc – made a documentary in 2008 on the fascinating subject of the Norwegian Reindeer Police (Reinpolitiet), which deals largely with herder disputes, and covers 56,000 square miles of Lapland with just fifteen personnel. Truc paints a wonderful portrait of this highly specialised police force in his absorbing debut novel, and in the process places the Arctic and its indigenous cultures centre stage. In these respects he has a lot in common with British author M.J. McGrath, who successfully deployed the research she carried out for her non-fiction book The Long Exile when creating her ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ series, set in the Canadian High Arctic.

Reindeer Police

At the start of Forty Days, we see Sámi-Norwegian reindeer policeman Klemet Nango and his young partner Nina Nansen being pulled into the investigation of a theft. A priceless Sámi drum has disappeared from the local museum, and needs to be recovered before a UN conference on indigenous peoples takes place in the region. Shortly afterwards, Sámi herder Mattis is found dead, and ‘Patrol P9’ finds itself grappling with two crimes that could well be interlinked, and whose roots lie in both the recent and more distant past.

The novel uses its criminal investigations as a means of exploring different aspects of Lapland and its history. One fascinating point is that present-day Lapland lies across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia (see map below), which on the one hand leads to tensions, but on the other encourages international cooperation. However, those borders are relatively recent – only a few hundred years old – and are insignificant as far as the reindeer are concerned, which follow their usual migratory patterns, blissfully unaware of national jurisdictions. The borders are thus exposed as artificial constructs, imposed by colonising governments out of tune with the natural world, and prone to exploiting the land and its indigenous populations rather than safeguarding them.

The novel brilliantly evokes the winter setting of Lapland – the end of the long darkness of forty days of winter night, and the slow, welcome return of the sun, which shows itself for a scant twenty-seven minutes on its first day back. Through the interactions of various characters – some nuanced and some symbolic – we’re also shown the tensions between Norwegians and Sámi, and the impact of religion, politics and modernisation on the traditional Sámi way of life. Simultaneously entertaining and insightful, with an engrossing plot, this is a cracking debut that illuminates a world most of us know little about. The final section of the novel has shades of Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow about it too, which is never a bad thing.

As the novel celebrates Sámi culture and present-day efforts to reclaim a Sámi cultural identity, I thought I’d finish by linking to the Sámi allaskuvla or Sámi Educational College, which works with ‘the Sámi community, particularly with young people, to preserve and promote the Sámi language, traditions, occupations, skills and knowledge’, and ‘supports Sámi society’s progress towards equality with the majority society’. It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

34 thoughts on “Arctic crimes: Olivier Truc’s Forty Days without Shadow (Lapland)

  1. I saw and heard him in Lyon last year and thought this was a really interesting book (it won the Quais du Polar prize as well). And he clearly knows his Northern countries, having lived in that region for so long. Glad to see you featuring it!

    • Thanks MarinaSofia – very glad the novel happened to come my way. Did Truc say anything about whether Forty Days was intended as a standalone or as the start of a series? I can imagine it as a standalone, but liked the pairing of the two very different Reindeer Police, and thought it a good, off-beat police procedural. Would be very pleased to see them in action again.

      • So pleased to read your review and the enthusiastic comments! Olivier’s second in the series is out now in French as ‘Le détroit du loup’ (‘Wolf Strait’), with Klemet and Nina patrolling in and around Hammerfest for the summer reindeer migration. It’s a fabulous follow-up. Itching to translate it! We are hoping for a decision from Little, Brown soon. Also thank you for the link to the Sami college – very apt, Norway’s one-time suppression of the Sami language is touched on in the novel.

      • Hello Louise! Thanks so much for commenting. I love hearing from translators on the blog: we international (crime) fiction lovers are hugely in your debt, and you did a wonderful job with Forty Days – thank you!

        Thanks too for bringing news of the follow up. I’m so pleased to hear that we’ll be meeting Klemet and Nina again – fingers crossed that the UK publishers go ahead. For what it’s worth, my review generated a lot of interest – the reindeer police and the setting are definitely a powerful draw.

        The link to the Sami college: yes, I very much liked the way the novel drew attention to the negative effects of Norwegian colonisation on the Sami. Good to see educational institutions helping to promote the Sami language and culture.

  2. Just visited the Norwegian bit of the Arctic Circle this spring and I’m looking forward to going back, so I’m delighted to have a chance to visit it in book form first! This looks fascinating. Thanks for highlighting it.

    • You’re welcome, Lexie. Hope you enjoy the novel and would love to hear your impressions after you get back from your trip. Do you visit for business or for pleasure?

  3. Thanks for the heads up Mrs P, didn’t know about this one – I know it would go down very well with members of the family, so that’s a very good recommendation – ta!

    • Hi Angela – you sum up the novel’s appeal perfectly there. I’m the same – I love finding out about new cultures through fiction, especially a cracking crime novel. I’d also be interested in knowing how Sami/Norwegian readers view the novel and its depiction of their community and culture – assuming it’s been translated into the Sami/Norwegian languages of course (must check that out). Truc occupies a rather tricky insider/outsider status as an author here – does this chime with your writing experiences at all?

      • The novel is just out in Norwegian and getting a good reception, I believe!

      • Absolutely, Mrs P. I dream of my books being translated into Thai some day, so I could be better held to account for my depictions of Thailand and Thai people.

  4. hi mrs. p. i just want to thank you for your reviews. like your other fans, i am sure, i am an avid crime/thriller reader (on my ipod) and some of the material out there is not really worth the time. you have opened up a wonderful new world of great writing for me. thanx so much, paula

  5. Oh, bleep. This novel looks wonderful, right up my street, etc., but of course my local library service has never heard of it . . . gotta keep all them multiple-copy orders of Danielle Steel rolling in, after all. Looking forward to when my book budgets rises above $0 again and I can splash out on this one!

    • Morning realthog :-). Ah good old Danielle Steel! But perhaps the library could be persuaded by the fact that the Norwegian Reindeer Police play a major role in the novel? Who could possibly resist?

  6. Sounds rather interesting! Have put in a recommendation at Bromley House, they have quite a good Scandi crime section, when I mentioned Reindeer Police, went down rather well!
    Finished the Jason Webster book, interesting, will have to see we’re he takes it next.
    Still awaiting news on the new Persson book, seems there are two paperbacks plus the Dyeing Detective for release in October.

    • Mention of the reindeer police is definitely the way to get people interested! I’m now halfway through Persson’s Falling Freely and it’s fantastic. I’m in full addiction mode and can’t wait for the chance to get stuck in again this evening.

  7. It certainly caused a good reaction! Didn’t know you had not read ‘Free Falling’….. One day I will have to try & read the 3 books together! ‘The Dying Detective’ has disappeared from the listings!
    Thinking about it, if your releasing 2 paperbacks of hard books all ready out, why would you release a new book by him? Make sense, although disappointing for me!
    Reading Charles McCarry’s ‘ Shanghai Factor’ really enjoying it. He is a writer I enjoy, this one is
    not part of the Paul Christopher series. Just waiting for the auto biography of Norman Lewis, a writer I’m getting into, re read his ‘Naples 44’ a couple of weeks ago, brilliant book. then discovered
    he had wrote fictional works.
    Re your German studies etc, very good programmer on radio 4 after ‘Front Row’ started last week,
    it’s by Neil McGregor, from the British Museum. All about different aspects of Germany, just now
    he is discussing the Brothers Grimm. We’ll worth catching on I player if you’ve not caught it.

  8. Thanks for your comments and replies, Mrs P! The ‘violence against women’ and ‘strong women in crime’ thread is highly interesting. I’d add that in two novels so far, Olivier Truc hasn’t murdered a woman, and one or two men with very nasty designs on the female sex get their come-uppance… Can we add Reindeer Police Officer Nina Nansen to your list of ‘strong women in crime’? I’d love to see Olivier’s novels translated into Sami, though there seems to be scant Sami publishing right now beyond children’s books and text books, which are the way to start, of course.

    • Hello Louise – From reading Forty Days it’s clear to me that Truc is acutely aware of gender issues and their relation to power/powerlessness in the social contexts he describes. By contrast, I get the feeling that some other writers are unaware of the larger implications of the gender dynamics they portray…

      I’ll definitely add Nina Nansen to the list of strong women – splendid idea. And fingers crossed for a Sami translation. It would be great (and very fitting) to see that happen.

  9. This is a great post. I’m so interested in Sami culture and Lapland. I saw a wonderful movie a few years ago called “The Cuckoo,” and think it is about a woman living in Lapland with two soldiers. It’s a riot.
    I haven’t read this and am not taking on new books now, as I have too many stacked up around here. But I did recommend this book to two friends who are fascinated with Lapland and environs. One of them is now in Denmark, having just returned from Greenland. Her spouse read Truc’s book and I’m awaiting comments.

    • Do pass on your friend’s comments, and your own when you get through the stack of unread stuff, Kathy! Olivier’s book conveys so much information about the Sami region and culture – he has really hit on the ‘perfect crime’ to throw it all into sharp relief, and I think he succeeds in doing it again in the second novel, set in Hammerfest, with the clash of cultures between the nomads and the interests attached to Big Oil and Gas.

    • Hi Kathy – I’m impressed by your world-wide reading connections! Very keen to hear what other readers make of this novel, and hopefully we will sneak it on to your TBR pile at some point in the future. My TBR pile is staring at me from the corner of the room now: it’s vast and just keeps growing.

  10. My TBR stacks are related to rabits; they seem to reproduce themselves. And I have library books galore and lots on reserve. And I’ve been watching slews of European TV episodes, as the library has been getting in many of them, after many requests. So I have benefited.
    The friends who bought this book live across town from me. One of them was able to study in Denmark and Greenland for awhile. I await her reading of this book.

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