Annabelle, Poe, and Nordic Noir
It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea, that a maiden there lived whom you may know by the name of Annabel Lee; and this maiden she lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.
This essay is an attempt at better understanding the modern nordic noir style of detective novel by looking at Annabelle by Lina Bengtsdotter (english title: For the Missing). Not only because the book is a great representation of the genre but also because it is of excellent quality and has interesting and well-hidden allusions to Poe. He is a man who is of great importance when studying the subject of detective novels. If you have not read Annabelle yet, please do. You can thank me later.
Now, let us begin:
The story begins in Stockholm before it soon moves out to the small industrial town of Gullspång, which is somewhat of a contrasting picture. The environment of Gullspång, where everyone knows everyone, makes for an interesting opportunity to play with social dynamics in the form of friendships, love, hatred, and gossip. As to be expected when a disappearance happens in a sleepy little town. There are two types of people in Gullspång: those that want nothing more than to leave and those that passively accept their place in the world. Sometimes the former will become the latter when the realities of life happen to them: substance abuse, children, God knows what. Charlie was one of the former as she fled to hide in the anonymous masses of Stockholm, something that suits her and her issues with psychological intimacy.
Annabelle is centered around the disappearance of a seventeen-year-old girl, not so far-fetched named Annabelle, or Bella for short. On the flip side, there could be an argument made for there being two intrigues equally important: that of Bella and Charlie. Bella’s death and Charlie’s journey to make peace with her past in the small town she once fled from and tried to forget.
The reader is given information through multiple sources and subplots in both the present and past. These bits of information act as pieces of a puzzle the reader initially does not know what to make of or where to place. As the story goes on, the reader gets more and more pieces and can start laying the puzzle but will not be able to get the whole motive/motif figured out. That is because the final piece in a detective story usually is the identity of the murderer we as readers have tried to figure out all along.
The author likes to use jumps in time as a tool to spin the web of intrigues such as there can only be in a small town like Gullspång. The echoes from the past can still be heard in the present, and they affect the villagers whether they realize it or not. The reader has is presented the information through three storylines, separated by time but still converging. First, we are presented with Annabelle’s last minutes as a kind of prologue. Then the narrative jumps to the perspective of Charlie. All are in third person present. Then we jump back and forth between Charlie’s present and her past before a third storyline is presented in the form of Charlie’s mother’s. Lastly, Annabelle’s storyline lays the last piece of the puzzle and ends the novel. The way the story is told might not be something revolutionary, but the author does it with style and precision in a way few could emulate.
Bengtsdotter attempts to, and succeeds with, creating a strong female lead character without making her feel like a knockoff copy of the traditional male counterpart. Charlie stands on her own both as a character and from a genus perspective. She is not a woman trying to be a man. She is a strong woman being herself. The author gives the impression of not trying to write a book with a strong female lead. The lead just happened to be female. There were no ulterior motives. Charlie is who she is, and her male colleagues have to accept that. Even as they snicker behind her back the same way they claim only women do.
Moreover, in a historical sense: Charlie would have been hard-pressed to exist as is only a few decades ago as she takes on the traditional male role and replaces him. Nevertheless, we are at the beginning of a new era now when traditional roles are challenged, and minorities are getting representation.
Charlie follows the stereotype of the criminal investigator as we usually know them in Nordic noir. She is excellent at her job but not so great at living an ordinary life: she is borderline alcoholic, has trust issues, and is promiscuous in a way that negatively impacts her. In essence, Charlie is a personification of the stereotypical hard-boiled investigator we all know and love — perhaps with the added promiscuity and the fact that she is a woman despite the somewhat androgynous name. A name perhaps chosen as a way to blurry the lines between the genders. As a way of saying: it does not matter. Perhaps it is a play with the gender reversal of the protagonist that has all the characteristics of the usual male counterpart with the only difference that she is a woman. Good so, we are not hit over the head with it.
If we were to compare Charlie and the classical detective stereotype as in Poe’s work, for example, we would find that much has happened in a century, but some things never change. Furthermore, one of those constants is the detective’s competence. Perhaps, this is a given. It would be hard to write a detective that fumbles and fails while still keeping the tension in a story aimed to be not comedic but eerie/serious. Such a story would inevitably turn into morbid comedy. Not that it is something necessarily wrong with that under the right circumstances, Poe did in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Perhaps it is some kind of comic relief. An orangutan, really?
The novel plays with the ideas of generations affecting generations as a localized buttery effect. The fact that one never really can escape from one’s heritage, however hard we try, and how a parent’s neglect might be passed down generations. It is hard to be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel, the saying goes. We are all a product of our environment. Sadly. Not only is everyone a product of their environment and upbringing, but also their current circumstances. Them being chosen as a product of free, but not necessarily well-informed will, or simple bad luck.
Regarding other themes: sexism and being brave enough to break free from the norms, childhood, small-town mentality, mental health. Is there a message? Perhaps: we are all the same regardless of if we live in a big city or a small town. The human experience is not that different. Also: we should learn to trust but also be careful with whom we share that trust. I think it is that simple, frankly.
- Bengtsdotter L. and Broomé, A. 2018. For the Missing. London: Orion Books.
- Poe E. 2008. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Essex: Pearson Education Ltd.
- Poe E. 2019. The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. La Vergne: Neeland Media LLC.