In case you were living under a rock, Scandinavia has exploded with a milieu of thriller/criminal/horror fiction in the past decade (branded Nordic noir if memory serves). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just the tip of the iceberg, there are a number of other writers producing novels of a similar mood—mysterious events, bizarre murders, sinister personalities, and of course, the bleak Nordic sun barely lighting a path forward. Possibly intentionally, possibly not, doesn’t matter, into this atmosphere Elizabeth Hand brings her own book of black metal with myth-infused murder, 2012’s Available Dark.
Hand’s 2007 Generation Loss introduced the broken “hero” Cass Neary. Washed up punk rock photographer, at a low moment in life she finds herself in small-town Maine, a threat looming as she tries to find some certainty in life. Seeing greater potential in Cass, five years later Hand follows up with another excellently unraveled, accidental mystery in Available Dark. Broke and confused in New York City after the events of Generation Loss, the drug-riddled, angst-bedeviled woman gets an offer she can’t refuse from a wealthy art patron: paid travel and a paycheck to go to Finland and verify the authenticity of a set of rare photographs. Heading to that cold, austere country, Neary performs her service. After confirming a set of chilling yet beautiful crime scene photos as authentic, she stops in Iceland to visit an old friend. Heavy metal, snow storms, a bizarre pair of brothers, and volcanic hot springs becoming an unwelcome part of her agenda, the situation finds a way to let her inner demons off the leash just when she thought healing was possible.
In terms of technique, Available Dark is pitch perfect. Hand takes a framework of fiction, tried and true for more than a century of western culture, and imbues it with uniqueness and personality to the point it has its own, complete identity. I would not call the novel transcendent, but taking into consideration each act/part evolves organically into the next, escalating suspense while subconsciously easing the reader deeper into the story and characters, it makes for the page turn-iest of reading. Before the reader knows, they are barreling toward a dark climax they know is coming but with zero clue how things will turn out, only that they are 100% on for the ride. The car crash is happening before your eyes, and you stare, fascinated.
I don’t know how it is for other readers, but Available Dark is one of those books I don’t fall asleep while reading before bed. I said it isn’t transcendent, but I guess I’m wrong; it is able to hold off sleep a little while longer. Just another chapter, just a few more pages… And when you do turn the last page and turn out the light, there is a sense of satisfaction that lingers for a few minutes as the brain shuts down for the night. I even woke up the next day, Damn, that was a good read.
I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying, you don’t need to be Swedish to write good Nordic noir. Available Dark, second novel to feature Cass Neary, possesses the same edge, the same dark look inside the human soul, the same page-turning desire to know who-what-why-and-how, and the same broken/anti-heroic “hero”—a main character with real problems which ground the novel in a reality beyond escape fiction. While the mood is not likely relaxing for the average reader, the novel nevertheless makes for the perfect bedtime read. Beware the time, however, you need to get up for work the next day…