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Birkegaard, Mikkel - 'Death Sentence' (translated by Charlotte Barslund)
Paperback: 400 pages (Sep. 2011) Publisher: Black Swan ISBN: 0552776807

Frank Føns is a crime writer living on a remote northern corner of the Danish coast. His days consist of writing his novels (each less successful than his last) and drinking with his next-door neighbour, and only his annual trip to a Copenhagen book fair breaks this rhythm. His quiet and uneventful existence ends abruptly when the chained and mutilated body of a woman is fished out of a nearby marina.

Verner, Føns's sleazy police advisor, almost gleefully informs him that this is 'his' murder - and in fact it reflects in every inventive and bizarre detail the killing at the heart of his latest, as-yet-unpublished novel In the Red Zone. There is no way this can be a coincidence, and Føns is forced to admit to himself that he must have inspired the killer.

Of course it doesn't end there, and as murder follows murder, each closely mirroring scenes-of-crime from his considerable backlist of potboilers, Føns casts himself as detective and sets out to trap the killer. Incentives to keep under the radar, from disbelief and a desire to distance himself from the killing, to the commercial incentive to go through with publication, to the need to protect his family and friends, make this a claustrophobic and lonely journey.

Føns comes across initially as a very cold man - he barely blinks at the news that the drowned woman is an ex-lover - but as he ventures back to his old haunts in Copenhagen more and more of his complex emotional history is exposed. His life has been inextricably bound together with his art in a way which has damaged both beyond repair. Føns must ultimately tackle head-on the time-honoured question - when life imitates art, does the artist have to shoulder the responsibility?

DEATH SENTENCE is a book that moves around on the spectrum between crime and horror, but is ultimately closer to horror. The resolution is unlikely to satisfy a pure mystery fan, but there is plenty to enjoy along the way. Føns is a well written and complex character and uncovering his motivations is as much fun as discovering what lies behind the killings. The supporting cast of policemen, publishers and prostitutes is believable and drives the story effectively.

A final health warning. DEATH SENTENCE is best avoided by the squeamish. Føns's trademark is graphic violence, and this breaks through into the text at various points, which may spoil the book for other readers. 

Rich Westwood, England
October 2011

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 30/10/2011 10:43