One of the most readily anticipated debut novels of 2023, Jenny Lund Madsen's Thirty Days of Darkness is another Orenda Books hit that will most definitely become a bestseller and a personal favorite for plenty of diehard Nordic, and more specifically Danish, crime fiction fans around the globe. Madsen is known to the Danish television audience as she was involved in writing the screenplay for the third season of the popular show Follow the Money (original title: Bedrag), delivering a monumental script, one that we -sadly- tend to encounter less and less in the genre's productions. Moreover, the Danish debut author also wrote 5 episodes of Rita, a dramedy following the tempestuous life of the protagonist, a recalcitrant schoolteacher who struggles both in her professional and personal circadian existence. Thus, even though this is the author's first-ever completed manuscript, the non-negligible achievements as a screenwriter deem Madsen a rather experienced storyteller and that becomes evident in her inaugural writing attempt. Thirty Days of Darkness narrates an engaging murder story that involves all the elements often associated with the genre (red herrings, plot twists, quirky characters), but also incorporates a meta-aspect as it is a narrative centered around the struggles of an author who is fighting to write a crime novel within a limited period of time.
The protagonist, Hannah Krause-Bendix, is a snub author of literary fiction who resents anything related to the commercial side of the publishing industry and the so-called genre fiction. Her work as an author, while critically acclaimed and twice nominated for the prestigious Nordic Council Prize for literature, hasn't succeeded in earning numerous readers, perhaps due to the highly introspective and character oriented prose that the author employs. At the beginning of the story, we follow Hannah as she visits a book fair, after the insistence of her editor and friend (?) Bastian, to sign copies of her novels and get in touch with the curious readers who would like to get to know her a bit better. As she sits in front of stacked copies of her most recent novels, she sees Jørn Jensen – ‘the world’s worst crime writer’ – ready to give an interview. Impulsive and fiery in temperament, Hannah throws a bulky book at Jensen and what follows is a public interaction between them that results in Hannah stating that anyone could write a crime novel, without facing major difficulties. Jensen challenges Hannah to write a crime novel in a month's time and let the readers assess whether it is good or not. Hannah, fueled by animosity, accepts, and she is subsequently sent to Iceland in order to find peace and write her first-ever crime story.
However, Hannah takes a great risk as she is currently suffering from a severe case of writer's block while also having to cope with her addiction to alcohol that makes her eager to isolate herself and drink wine until she is properly drunk. The protagonist's career hangs in a balance as if she fails to complete the novel in one month, her future as an author seems rather dismal. Hannah travels to Iceland and from Reykjavík, she is transferred to the small village of Húsafjöður, a remote location that would help her concentrate more easily on her task. Hannah's host, Ella, is an elderly woman who doesn't speak neither English nor Danish, thus making communication between the two women a bit problematic. During the first days of her stay, the local community is shocked to its core by the murder of a young man, Thor, who also happens to be Ella's beloved nephew. Hannah will see the murder as the golden opportunity for her novel, as she could base her plot on the real circumstances surrounding the victim's demise. She will play detective, snoop around in places where she is not supposed to be, and personally interrogate witnesses and suspects in her double quest: finding the truth about Thor's murder and completing her manuscript on time.
We read as the story unfolds through the perspective of Hannah, an experience that can be deemed challenging, as she is not the personification of an easily identifiable protagonist. She is stubborn, impulsive, socially inept and prone to addictions, while she also seems to be confused as far as her own sexual orientation is concerned. Nevertheless, Madsen's pen thrives as the reader forms vivacious images of the wild Icelandic landscape through Hannah's eyes while, as the plot evolves, we become familiar with her particularities. The way we see and evaluate Hannah as the main character, changes as the narrative moves forward and in the end, we begin to even like watching the plot unfold through her unique point of view. She has a knack for attracting trouble and conflicts, something that we learn early in the story while is seemingly rather judgmental towards other people, one of her most irksome traits that, nevertheless, contains a comical side, especially when thinking about her arch-nemesis Jørn Jensen or Bastian, who is more interested in the corporate aspect of publishing than the purely literary one. Madsen capitalizes on the secluded setting and, once more, Iceland turns out to be the perfect terrain for a murder story to unravel.
The plot is well-woven and tight, never tiring the reader, while the skillful descriptive parts suggest not a debutant, but an author of established reputation. The narrative is infused with a venomous humor, manifesting itself through Hannah's inner thoughts as depicted on the page. There are several distractions and red herrings that are meant to lead the reader astray, and the twists begin their dance after the first half of the novel. The author sets the old debate regarding literature vs. genre fiction as the foundation of a literary crime story that puts her on the map of the most distinguished Danish representatives of the category. I also liked the finale, which was fitting and satisfactory and left me with a sweet aftertaste. Thirty Days of Darkness is a book that is worth of its hype, and I firmly believe that it will be among those nominated for some of the most eminent Scandinavian crime fiction's book awards. Megan Turney, who has previously translated Unhinged, the third installment in the Blix and Ramm series by Tomas Enger and Jørn Lier Horst, does a splendid job in a strenuous text that often blends Icelandic, Danish and English as the Húsafjöður are certainly not polyglots. Definitely recommended to all fans of Scandi-crime. I hope for a TV adaptation also, with the screenplay written by Madsen herself.