Book Review: THE LAKE by Lotte and Søren Hammer

The skeleton of a young woman is discovered, tied to a stone, in a lake deep in the Danish countryside. The woman’s identity is a mystery; no one matching her description has been reported missing. After months of fruitless investigation by the local police force, a media scandal brings the case to nationwide attention and is quickly handed over to Konrad Simonsen and his team from the Copenhagen police force. It soon becomes clear that this unknown woman is the key to a sinister world of human trafficking, prostitution, and violence. A world where everything comes with a price and no mistake goes unpunished.

I was sent a copy of THE LAKE by a nice publicity person at Bloomsbury with the thought that I might review it. I don’t consider myself a book reviewer, though I review books… which I suppose makes me a book reviewer of sorts. But I certainly don’t review books simply because someone sent me the book asking me to review it. When people do that, there’s the assumption you’re going to love the book and write a glowing review, and if you don’t write a glowing review, feelings get hurt, you get nasty mail and defamatory Tweets and all that nonsense–I’d rather not go there. But if someone sends me a book, and I deem it worthy of a review, I’ll be glad to oblige.

In the case of THE LAKE, I have to say I didn’t fall in love with the book, but it was good, and had some features that made it worth reading, and of interest for a review. Let me start by saying that it is a translation from the original Danish. I have conflicting thoughts when it comes to books in translation. First, I know that when you translate, you never fully get across the author’s voice. It’s impossible, because you have to take their words and convey them in a language that doesn’t share the same idioms, cadence, grammatical structure, and so on, so aspects of the author’s style are bound to get lost. On the other hand, you don’t want the translator to simply render the whole novel as if it’s set in your culture, because then it becomes a different story “based on a novel by…” THE LAKE is translated by Charlotte Barslund, who is Danish by birth, but has lived in the UK for the past 33 years, so she is fluent in English. Her translation is a little stilted at times, but that was actually a good thing. The book is set in Denmark, and the characters are Danish, so it works that the English feels a bit ESL.

But there’s a twist! The English is actually British English, and the translator uses British idioms, even though this is the American edition of the book (published by Bloomsbury USA). “Of course!” you say. “Ms. Barslund has been living in the UK for the last 33 years.” But I find it interesting that Bloomsbury didn’t try to Americanize her work. Mathematics is “maths,” cell phones are “mobile phones,” colors are “colours,” and there are hundreds more little turns of phrase that reminded me of my homeland and made me smile. This is by no means a negative, but something for US readers to bear in mind.

But what about the story itself? This is the fourth novel to feature Konrad Simonsen, Detective Superintendent of the Copenhagen police. There are, in fact, seven novels in the series so far, but I think they’ve only got as far as translating the fourth, so this one is new to the English-speaking world (the original Danish title is PIGEN I SATANS MOSE, “The Girl in Satan’s Mose”–intriguing, huh?). I have not read any of the previous stories, so I came to this one not knowing any of the recurring characters–I presume the Countess, Arne Pederson, Pauline Berg, and Klavs Arnold have been in previous stories..? In any case, my lack of history with the series didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. The Hammers (a brother and sister writing team) gave as much background as necessary without long “catch-up” passages for those, like me, late to the party. Though I have to say, it didn’t feel as if Det. Simonsen was really the star of the show here. He is the lead investigator, but I didn’t find him and his Copenhagen police team nearly as interesting as the bad guys.

The book starts like an episode of “Columbo,” showing us the crime, and identifying the perpetrators, so we know up-front who did it and how. But there’s more to these criminals than this one horrible act. There’s a whole family business lurking in the background, and all kinds of intrigues and deviousness going on there. The daughter of the family, Benedikte Lerche-Larson, is perhaps the most fascinating character of the whole story. She is both the dutiful daughter, and also the head-strong independent woman, pursuing her education, and making herself integral to the business. She appears cold and amoral, doing whatever it takes to keep things going. And yet she risks it all getting emotionally invested in someone.

All the acts of violence in the story have connections to the main puzzle: the murder of the woman in the lake. And as Simonsen and his team gradually put the pieces together, they uncover something much larger, much more horrific, and more far-reaching than they could have imagined possible. We, the reader, are always ahead of the police, since we are given front-row seats to each criminal act–at least for the most part. The Hammers plotted the story well so all the pieces fit at the end. However, I didn’t find it at all predictable; while the ending is satisfying, it didn’t tie together as neatly as I expected. There’s one major loose end the police weren’t able to knot… and I daresay that will come back to haunt them in future stories.

To sum up, this is a well-plotted detective thriller (though I use “thriller” very lightly–there aren’t any car chases, shoot-outs, or moments of life-or-death tension for the good guys one might normally associate with the genre). There are some sexual situations, but given that human trafficking and prostitution are part of the story, that’s only to be expected. There aren’t any graphic sex scenes. The acts of violence are a bit brutal. With few exceptions, the language is fairly PG-13. Overall, I’d rate the book an R, because of the subject matter and the violence. It’s a borderline 4-Goodreads-stars novel, but I would have liked to have had more sympathy and connection with the lead character, so to be fair I’ll have to give it 3 stars. Nevertheless, a good read, and one I’d recommend to fans of detective fiction.

THE LAKE will be released in the US on July 3, 2017. You can pre-order it now.

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting article on The Invisibility of the Translator by Stefan Kielbasiewicz from Asymptotejournal.com.

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