Lonesome policeman Lance Hansen is the central character in Vidar Sundstøl’s “The Land of Dreams,” a novel that won Norway’s Riverton Prize for best crime novel of 2008 and is finally available here. Divorced, solitary and prey to gloom, men like Lance are familiar figures in Scandinavian crime fiction, though this time the setting is unexpected: Northern Minnesota, a region peopled by Americans of Scandinavian extraction.
Lance is a third-generation Norwegian American with a weakness for Old Dutch potato chips and Dove chocolates. He lives on the shores of Lake Superior and works for the U.S. Forest Service out of a tight little town “where people called to tell you to get better before you even knew you were under the weather.” His ex-wife, part-Indian, lives on a reservation with the couple’s young son. Love for his child aside, Lance’s great interest is regional history, and he annoys people with the righteous historian’s penchant for debunking fondly held local and family myths.
One bright morning, following up on a report of an illegal campsite in Superior National Forest, Lance is confronted with a naked man covered in blood, mumbling something in Norwegian. Nearby is another man, dead, his head bashed in. Getting to the bottom of the crime turns out to be a job not only for Lance but for the sheriff, local police, an FBI agent, a crime investigator sent from Norway, and, as it happens, two more novels, because this is only the first in a Minnesota trilogy. Though a satisfying number of disturbing facts come to light in these pages, there is still much to be sorted out in the volumes to come.
The murder begins to have ramifications for Lance that go far beyond the professional. In the first place, he happens upon troubling evidence that points to the guilt of someone connected to him by blood. And, secondly, a chance question about when the town saw its last murder sends him to the archives, where he begins to piece together facts that undermine his own family’s “primordial myth.”
Running two stories — one unfolding in the present, the other in the past — Sundstøl explores how the region’s history affects the present. He sketches a picture of this stretch of the Upper Midwest from the 17th century to the heyday of the Grand Portage in the 18th century and the shared tenancy of Indians and voyageurs, on through British and American dominion over the region and the subsequent expulsion of the Indians to reservations. Treaties, deeds and maps redefined land and water, and “the world as it actually existed was erased and conjured into a dark spirit world.” That shadowy realm of vanished people inhabits Lance’s imagination and eventually invades his conscience as a past crime flickers through to color the present-day murder investigation.
Sundstøl embeds his plot and characters deeply in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota, which, if not exactly exotic, has eerie aspects, including the presence of magnetized iron ore below the surface, confounding compasses and attracting lightning.
The story is very far from complete, but it has created a world, past and present, and not terribly benign, that I can scarcely wait to enter again.
Powers is a critic in Cambridge, Mass., and editor of “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers.”
THE LAND OF DREAMS
By Vidar Sundstøl
Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally
Univ. of Minnesota. 284 pp. $24.95