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  • Frozen Forensics
  • Myrdene Anderson (bio)
Forty Days Without Shadow: An Arctic Thiller
Olivier Truc
Louise Rogers LaLaurie, trans.
Grand Central Publishing
480 Pages; Print, $16.00

At 70 degrees north latitude, in Saapmi, or Lapland, the sun disappears entirely for 40 dayless days in the dead of winter: the moon and aurora borealis providing the only light. This thriller novel commences on the day before the sun dangles on the horizon for 27 minutes on the 11th of January, in 2011, and ends with the 55th chapterlet on the 28th of January when five hours of daylight suffice to resolve an accumulation of mysteries, starting even before the brief prologue, dating to 1693.

The scene set in those first half-dozen pages introduces all the significant elements of Saami culture that fuel the proliferating parallel events, hour by hour, in that contemporary month. Saami society, in 1693 as in 2011, consists as an indigenous ethnic minority—a small population spread over vast northern stretches of now four nation-states: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a corner of Russia. Then, as now, the subsistence activities of Saami range from reindeer breeding to sedentary farming, entrepreneurial ventures, and service occupations. Individuals from all these social and geographic backgrounds and beyond intersect in virtual Brownian motion in this drama, but the major character is a drum: a shaman’s drum that we know was hidden before the first, murky murder in 1693.

A drum, that turns out to be the very same drum, surfaces in the first chapterlet only to be immediately stolen, before its authenticity could be documented. Both drums and chanting (the joik) were associated with the shamanism that had to be wiped out if the Saami were to be saved from themselves. This brand of Christianity taught that cattle were God’s creatures, while reindeer were not.

Olivier Truc, writing this Arctic thriller first in his native French, emphatically announces that Forty Days Without Shadow is indeed fiction, and that “names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.” It may be that the author doth protest too much: international borders, countries, cities, towns, villages, roads, intersections, businesses, landscapes, religious sects, and even some individuals are sometimes explicit, and the author freely refers to actual historical events in passing or with deliberate focus: from an ethnic rebellion (or massacre, from the Norwegian standpoint) of 1852 in Kautokeino, Norway, to a governmental hydroelectric power project of 1983 on the Alta River that compromised pasturage for the reindeer nomads. The commingling of mythical disasters and contemporary calamities bring layers of facts and fictions into and out of focus, in a kaleidoscope of black and white.

Then, add blood and stir as the color red splashes around in the kaleidoscope. No sooner had municipal police and the reindeer patrol (that oversee reindeer herding practices on the tundra) wrapped their heads around the theft of the drum, a bachelor herder, known to construct drums for the tourist trade, was found dead, surely murdered, and moreover, missing his ears. The ears of Saami reindeer reveal their owners, through a system of cuts along the edges of the ears, and sure enough, one by one, the two missing human ears show up in municipal offices with indecipherable mutilations along the lobes and edges. But can these marks (“words” in the Saami language) be read? The small community and its officials ponder proliferating clues assaulting them from local gossip and from selective recollections of the past: might the murder tie in with the theft of the drum the previous day; could it relate to a vendetta arising from the rustling of reindeer in the near or distant past; would it prove to tie in with contemporary Saami revitalizing political movements, or what about earlier racist policies of the Scandinavian countries? Then, enter crass multinational capitalistic enterprise, adding yellow to the kaleidoscope: gold.

The task of investigating these crimes, in a community seldom exposed to more than a youthful brawl, falls particularly into the laps of a two-person...


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