THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE
By Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis
Translated from the Danish by Lene Kaaberbol
Soho. 313 pp. $24
Novels about stolen children are emotionally hard for most readers to handle, and yet they are instantly compelling because so much is at stake: a child’s tender psyche or even life. With a mystery about a stolen inheritance or even a great painting filched from a museum, it’s easy enough to assume a commonsensical Buddhist point of view: In the end, it’s only stuff. But when a 3-year-old is forcibly taken from his anguished mother, as happens in this terrific Danish thriller, you know you’re in for a frantic read. Is this “fun”? Yes and no. What’s for sure is that, once you start reading, you can’t stop — it’s as if the poor kid’s life depends on your getting to the end as fast as possible.
Even the title of this first in a series by two Danish writers with their own careers — Lene Kaaberbol does fantasy, Agnete Friis writes children’s books — induces apprehension and dread. The boy in the suitcase is exactly that: a naked tot, drugged but alive, who turns up in a suitcase in the Copenhagen railway station. It takes a while to learn much about Karin Kongsted, the woman who left the boy there, but the woman who finds him, Nina Borg, is wonderfully, painfully vivid right away. She’s the central figure in this new series — a Red Cross nurse with a social conscience so robust that she sometimes neglects her husband and children to help maltreated refugees and illegal immigrants.
Kaaberol and Friis have packed plenty of depressing information about human trafficking into their labyrinthine tale, much of it related to poverty and social breakdown in the Eastern European countries once dominated by the Soviet Union. Most of the novel’s richness, however, comes from the supple rendering of the two mothers whose stories are told on parallel tracks. Borg is all too believable, a nurse who “could always be counted on. She led a remarkably efficient one-woman crusade to save the world,” according to her exasperated husband. “It was only her own family who could reduce her to abject helplessness.”
You keep rooting for this basically decent woman to get her act together, while even more wrenching is the dilemma facing Sigita Ramoskiene in Vilnius, Lithuania. While the father of her little boy, Mikas, is off working in Germany, a strange woman at a playground lures the boy to her with chocolate. She and her sadistic Polish boyfriend then drug Sigita and make off with her child. Sigita wakes up in a hospital. The police wrongly suspect her of being a drunk and a bad mother. As a refugee from a dysfunctional rural family, Sigita has no one to help her find her boy. “She did not want to admit to [a police detective] just how alone she was. It was shameful, like some embarrassing disease.” Sigita is forced to draw on reserves of strength and cunning she didn’t know she had as she maneuvers desperately to find her child.
Borg’s reason for not simply taking the found boy to the police is not entirely plausible: The bad Pole has spotted her at the train station and is soon chasing her around Denmark, and she has lost her cellphone. Well, okay. . . . The suspense is nonetheless abundant, with scenes like the one where a man who plans on purchasing the boy is stuck on an airliner that keeps losing its place in the takeoff queue while the fate of the boy hangs by a thread. Another ticking-clock element is Borg’s search for someone — practically anyone — who speaks the boy’s language so she can find out who he is.
This series debut — translated with assurance by Kaaberbol — looks like another winning entry in the emotionally lacerating Scandinavian mystery sweepstakes.
Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. “Red White Black and Blue” was recently published.