It’s a Mystery: “A Father’s No Shield for His Child”
By Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
Soho Press, 2011
As early as the seventeenth century, the act of stealing or carrying off a person, especially a child, was referred to as kidnapping. The crime of kidnapping is often accompanied by other offenses, including extortion, rape and murder. Writers of detective fiction and psychological thrillers have always been tempted to use the crime around which to center their work. Kidnapping rears its ugly head in the earliest recognized examples of exemplary mystery writing.
From Edgar Allen Poe, the original master of suspense, there is the classic tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). Once you’ve read it, you won’t soon forget the screams of the hapless
Fortunato who has been entombed by the evil Montresor. Soon after, in 1860, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White was published. The novel’s eponymous character makes her first appearance fleeing from unlawful captivity in a nearby asylum. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity, The Woman in White combines gothic horror with psychological realism. The novel also boasts one of the great villains of Victorian fiction, Count Fosco. Collins is credited with having virtually invented the full-length detective novel.
Although the word abduction is used interchangeably with kidnapping, it seems to conjure up a more horrific act. For writers of the genre, the most heinous crimes involve children as victims of systematic psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Real-life cases have produced some of the all-time great mysteries. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was inspired by the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son. A clever Christie puzzle, the punishment most assuredly fits the crime. Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948), one of her best, is a reworking of an infamous eighteenth-century case of the abduction and detention of a schoolgirl. It has, early on, one of my favorite digressions:
“Abduction and Detention” had not sullied the Blair, Hayward, and Bennett files since December 1798, when the squire of Lessows, much flown with seasonable claret, had taken the young Miss Gretton across saddle-bow from a ball at the Gretton home and ridden away with her through the floods; and there was no doubt at all, of course, as to the squire’s motive on that occasion.
Then there is Mary Willis Walker’s remarkable, Under the Beetle’s Cellar (1995), which concerns hostage-taking by a religious cult not unlike the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. A crazy and his followers abduct eleven children and their driver, a Vietnam veteran, from a school bus.
Even in the 21st century, the least secretive age in history, when child abusers are the stuff of everyday news, cases from the past can haunt the present. In Peter Robinson’s Aftermath (2001), the disappearance of two young girls uncovers a host of old sins that have spread through generations. Another gem in this vein is Robert Barnard’s The Bones in the Attic (2002), wherein a child’s skeleton unearths more than one grisly present-day mystery. In Jonathan Kellerman’s Rage (2005), a boy who was barely a teenager when he kidnapped and murdered a child, resurfaces to wreak havoc on a community. Finally, a recent favorite of mine, Deborah Crombie’s Necessary as Blood (2009), an elegantly wrought mystery about the ties that bind families and how the disappearance of a parent can tear them asunder.
Which brings me to The Boy in the Suitcase, a taut psychological thriller that centers on the question: why would someone stuff a three-year-old boy, naked and drugged but alive, into a suitcase and leave him in a train station locker? The boy is the “package” that Nina Borg has reluctantly agreed to pick up for her friend Karin, who leaves her the key to a public locker in the Copenhagen train station along with a cryptic message about taking care of its contents. “Why?” is, of course, the first question Nina asks herself. “What possessed me?” might be another. Except that, as we soon learn, Nina, a Red Cross nurse, is one of those handful of people driven to salvage lives no matter the personal cost. Clearly, it’s what her friend Karin counted on:
She was an expert at making herself believe that she was the only one who could save the world and put things right…colleagues of hers who had been stationed with her at various global hotspots admired her…she was nearly inhumanly cool and competent in the midst of the most horrible crises…when a light grenade set fire to the infirmary tents, when patients arrived with arms or legs blown away by landmine explosions…then Nina was the one who could always be counted on… It was only her own family who could reduce her to abject helplessness.
Once she recovers from the shock of finding the boy, her natural instinct is to turn him over to the authorities: a risky move since it could lead to his being returned to his original captors. Boy in tow, she sets out to find an ever-elusive Karin and some answers. All she learns from the boy is that his name is Mikas and he speaks only Lithuanian. When she discovers Karin brutally murdered, she knows that she and the boy must flee for their lives. In an increasingly desperate trek across Denmark, Nina is drawn into a violent underworld as she tries to figure out who the boy is, where he belongs, and who is hunting him down.
This is a novel with a sense of menace on every page. It utilizes the technique of elucidating parallel lives and motives which set off a series of chain reactions that involve the villains and their victims. What is chilling is that we don’t get to sort out the corrupt from the innocent until the very end.
In Vilnius, a young woman named Sigita wakes up in a hospital bed with a broken arm and a slight concussion. The last thing she remembers is being in the kindergarten playground with her son. Her frantic search for him leads her from her estranged husband to a boss she fears and despises. It takes her from Lithuania to Denmark where the “sin” she has been hiding her whole life catches up with her. Is her son the boy in the suitcase?
In Denmark, Jan, a member of Copenhagen’s financial elite, feels out of his depth for the first time in his life. He has embarked on a dangerous course of action to save his ailing son, but now it’s begun to backfire and he is, as Shakespeare would say, hoisted by his own petard. Where is the body part he has paid a king’s ransom for? What does it have to do with the boy in the suitcase?
Hard on Jan’s heels is Jucas, a Lithuanian thug:
Jucas knew his rage was both a weakness and a strength…rage helped him do things he didn’t really like doing. It was always there, just under the surface, a hidden power he could call on at need…he could do what had to be done. But it was dangerous to unleash it, because it also meant a loss of control. He couldn’t always stop once he had started…
That king’s ransom was supposed to be his and it’s missing. All he’s got is a strange woman who collected the suitcase and left no money. Is Jucas into sex trafficking, organ theft, or both? For pure evil, Jucas has few peers. He reminds me of Pinkie, the violent punk killer in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. And that’s bad news for everybody involved with the boy in the suitcase.
When the end of the novel comes, it’s with a bang not a whimper. The author’s have captured the sinister underbelly of Denmark and its very dirty secrets. They are expert at depicting violence couched in normalcy. Without warning, we are left with a gut-wrenching surprise.
The next Nina Borg novel, already a hit abroad, is due here next November. The authors are currently at work on the third, in which the roots of the central mystery reach back to the early days of Stalin’s rule. How’s that for a teaser?
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.