Copenhagen, I’ve Never Felt Your Grip so Tight*

denmarkOn the surface of it, Copenhagen is a peaceful, lovely place. When you think of Copenhagen, you may think of Hans Christian Andersen, or perhaps the beautiful Tivoli Gardens.  If you think of Denmark, you may think of the striking seacoast, or the quiet farmland. Your first thought probably isn’t of murder and mayhem. But trust me, there is plenty of crime-fictional havoc wreaked in Denmark. Don’t believe me? Just consider these examples from the genre.

Copenhagen is the setting for part of Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. That’s the story of Smilla Jaspersen, a half-Inuit Greenlander who now lives in Copenhagen. Smilla’s not a particularly social person, but she’s developed a sort of friendship with a ten-year-old boy, Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building. He, too, is a Greenlander, so they share that bond. One day, Isaiah dies from a tragic fall from the room of his (and Smilla’s) apartment building. Smilla finds herself drawn to the scene, and notices the patterns in the snow. They suggest to her that Isaiah’s fall wasn’t so accidental, so she starts to ask questions. Those questions lead Smilla into grave danger – and into something much bigger than one small boy’s fall from a roof.

In Leif Davidson’s The Serbian Dane, we are introduced to Vuk, a Bosnian Serb who was raised in Denmark. He is hired to kill Sara Santanda, an Iranian author who’s been living in hiding in London. She’s under a death threat, and Vuk is tapped to carry that threat out when Santanda decides to travel to Copenhagen. Her plan is to give an exclusive interview to Lise Carlsen of the newspaper Politiken. The Danish government is well aware of her plan, and assigns Per Toflund, a security expert with the Danish national police, the responsibility for her safety. He and Vuk are formidable opponents, and as the story goes on, we see the tension build as we learn what measures each side is taking. We also learn the backstories of the main characters, and what’s led to the roles each plays.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series also takes place in Copenhagen. It features homicide detective Carl Mørck. When the series begins, he’s recovering from a line-of-duty incident in which he was gravely injured and a colleague killed. Another colleague was left with paralysis. As it is, Mørck’s not exactly an extrovert or an optimist. But after the incident, he got so difficult to work with that people no longer wanted to be teamed up with him. So, he was tapped to lead the new ‘Department Q,’ which was set up to investigate ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. Not only did that decision solve the problem of what to do with Mørck, but also, it gave the police some leverage with the government and the media. The top brass can now say they take all crimes seriously, and are conscientious about investigating. As the series continues, Mørck acquires first one assistant, Hafez al-Assad, and then another, Rose Knudsen. Both have interesting backgrounds and unique skills that they bring to the department. And all three are, in their way eccentric. Together, they form an interesting investigative team.

In Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, we are introduced to Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. When an old friend asks her to go to Copenhagen’s main train station and pick up a suitcase, Nina is willing to oblige. She discovers, to her shock, that the suitcase contains a little boy. He is drugged and frightened, but alive. When she tries to contact her friend, it seems that friend has disappeared. Now, Nina is drawn into a case that involves a missing boy, a shadowy figure nicknamed The Dane, and murder. As the series continues, Nina continues her work on behalf of others, especially immigrants to Denmark, who sometimes come with not much more than the clothes they’re wearing. As she tries to help those most in need, Nina has a tendency to put herself in too much danger. It’s alienated her family and is a serious, ongoing threat to her health. As the series goes on, she tries to put herself together, and it’s interesting to see how she goes about it.

And, just in case you were thinking that the rest of Denmark must be safer than Copenhagen, think again. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has written a few award-winning series and standalones. One of them features Tora Skammelsen, a writer who has moved to her aunt’s North Sea cottage to find some peace and quiet, sort her life out, and of course, write. In North Sea Cottage, she uncovers a skeleton in an old stable on the property. And she finds figurative skeletons in her family’s history. In The Woman Behind the Curtain, Tora finds out more than she intended about the people who live near her parents. And then there’s Football Widow, in which Tora and local police officer Thomas Bilgren look into the world of football and footballers’ families. There’s a fourth Tora Skammelsen story in the making, and I’m excited for it (I’m almost finished reading it, Dorte!).

And I haven’t even mentioned television series such as The Bridge and Dicte. You see? Don’t let appearances deceive you. Denmark is beautiful and peaceful on the surface. Underneath? Perhaps not so much.

ps Thanks, for the lovely ‘photo!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tina Dickow’s Copenhagen.


Filed under Agnete Friis, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Leif Davidsen, Lene Kaaberbøl, Peter Høeg

27 responses to “Copenhagen, I’ve Never Felt Your Grip so Tight*

  1. I went to Copenhagen for the first time this year and that lovely picture bought back wonderful memories. Since I have a fondness for reading books set in places I’ve visited I think I’m going to add the first in the Department Q series, Mercy to my wishlist. Thank you

    • Lucky you, Cleo, to have had the chance to go to Copenhagen! I’m glad you had such a good time, too 🙂 – I do recommend the Department Q series; all in all, it’s quite well-written.

  2. I have been to Copenhagen on business trips and even went to visit Lego in Billund from there (on business, not just to gallivant about at Legoland). In fact, my then-husband joined me on one of those business trips (the only time ever) and we have good reason to suspect that my older son was conceived in Copenhagen, so it occupies a special place in my heart. In fact, my Danish clients joked for ages afterwards that I should call him ‘Copey’ or ‘Carlsberg’ or something like that.

    • Well, a name like that makes sense, Marina Sofia 😉 – It sounds as though Copenhagen really is special to you, and I can see why. And besides all else, it really is a lovely city with fine food, good places to stay, the whole thing. Little wonder you enjoyed it so well.

  3. I still have Smilla’s Sense of Snow on the wishlist – it must have been there for about three years now. Really must get around to reading it sometime!

    • I hope you do get the chance to read it, FictionFan. It’s got some very strong characters, I think. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the plot unfolds in an unusual way, especially at the end. I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  4. Marianne Wheelaghan

    Great recommendations! Thanks. My son lives in Copenhagen now and so I have the perfect excuse to visit and I love the place, dark fiction and all. I especially like the electric bikes 😉 I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow years ago – and saw the film – maybe it’s time to read it again? Funnily enough I just watched Dicte, which i really enjoyed. The Bridge, of course, is great! Thanks again for tips, will look up the ones I don’t know.

    • I’m so glad you’ve had good experiences visiting Copenhagen, Marianne. And you know, those electric bikes are inspired, aren’t they? I’ve been enjoying Dicte, myself, so it’s good to know I’m not the only one. And yes, The Bridge is really well done! Thanks for the kind words!

  5. Hmpf, Margot. My wife and I are taking a transatlantic cruise next May which winds up in Copenhagen, and we’re supposed to spend a couple of extra days there at the end of our trip for some sightseeing – and along you come to terrify us! 😉

    Seriously, we’ve never been there before, and it looks truly beautiful. And – until now – safe enough…

    We’re looking forward to it!

    • Oh, don’t let me spoil your trip, Les. Copenhagen is a lovely city, with fine food and wine, great places to visit, the whole thing. Just…be careful. That’s all. Really… 😉 Seriously, I do hope you have a wonderful time.

  6. I read “Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow” when it first came out about twenty years ago or so, and I remember it as a proper page turner. I think what made it so captivating for me was the setting (Greenland and Copenhagen) and the mysterious characters in the book.

    My impression is that a lot of writers tend to underestimate the power that a strong/mysterious protagonist/antagonist gives a book. Instead they focus more on the plot, and subsequently the personalities end up taking a backseat, which is a shame.

    David Morrell’s debut novel “First Blood” is a book that comes to mind as far as character driven stories are concerned. I read that book from cover to cover without taking a single break.

    And as you pointed out towards the end in the post, the TV crime drama “The Bridge” was based on a Danish/Swedish show where a murder victim was found on the bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmo (Sweden).

    I never got a chance to watch the original Scandinavian version, but I watched the first season of the US version, and I liked it a lot.

    • You’re quite right, Hervey, about the power of characters. Plot matters – of course it does – but if the characters aren’t interesting, readers won’t stay engaged. So, yes, one of the author’s primary concerns should becreating characters that will appeal to readers. Thanks for mentioning the Morrell. I’ve seen the film adaptation but, I confess, not read the novel. I’m glad you found it a good character study.

  7. I think Department Q, Carl Mørck, Hafez al-Assad, and Rose Knudsen will always come to mind when I hear Copenhagen. The stories have been intriguing and have given me a glimpse of a fascinating land and culture.

    • That is a fine series, isn’t it, Mason? There really is a good sense of what Copenhagen is like in those novels. And, of course, the characters are very well-drawn.

  8. That beautiful photo reminds me of Bergen, Norway… It always seems to me that the Scandinavian countries should be relatively crime free, but I found in my own travels that wasn’t true. It seems there are opportunities for crime writers every place in the world.

    • I think there are, Pat. Crime really doesn’t have just one address… And lucky you to have had the chance to visit Norway. I’ll bet it’s beautiful there.

  9. mudpuddle

    we just viewed the first episode of “The Eagle”, a procedural based in Copenhagen; it seems excellent so far: not much gore or sadism…

  10. tracybham

    Margot, I haven’t read any of these except for Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I do plan to read the Department Q series. There is just not enough time to read everything I want to read.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Tracy! There are so many series (and standalones!) I would like to read, but just haven’t got the time. The Department Q series is good, though – recommended if/when you get the time.

  11. I loved Copenhagen! Will definitely go back again..

    I wrote a post about the top brunch places in Copenhagen. Check it out


  12. I was there last year and loved it! The people were so friendly, the food was delicious, and Tivoli was awesome!

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