By Olivier Truc
Read by Malcolm Hillgartner
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Tomorrow, the sun will rise for the first time in 40 days. Thirty minutes of daylight will herald the end of the polar night in Kautokeino, a small village in northern Norway, home to the indigenous Sami people.
But in the last hours of darkness, a precious artifact is stolen: an ancient Sami drum. The most important piece in the museum’s collection, it was due to go on tour with a UN exhibition in a few short weeks.
Hours later, a man is murdered. Mattis, one of the last Sami reindeer herders, is found dead in his gumpy.
Are the two crimes connected? In a town fraught with tension–between the indigenous Samis fighting to keep their culture alive, the ultra-Lutheran Scandinavian colonists concerned with propagating their own religion, and the greedy geologists eager to mine the region’s ore deposits–it falls to two local police officers to solve the crimes. Klemet Nango, an experienced Sami officer, and Nina Nansen, his much younger partner from the south of Norway, must find the perpetrators before it’s too late…
THIS EDITION INCLUDES A READING GROUP GUIDE
About the Author
Olivier Truc is a French journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker living in Stockholm, Sweden, where he is a correspondent for the French newspapers Le Monde and Le Point. His most recent documentary (The Reindeer Police, 2008) portrays a group of Norwegian policemen who belong to a special unit tasked with preventing conflicts connected to reindeer herding in the Sapmi region of Norway. Forty Days Without Shadow is his debut novel. First published in France under the title Le dernier Lapon, it went on to win fifteen awards, including the prestigious Prix Mystère de la Critique and the Prix des Lecteurs de Quais du Polar. It was also shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award.
1693, Central Lapland
ASLAK STUMBLED, a sign of exhaustion. He never missed his footing otherwise. The old man kept a firm hold on the package he was carrying. He rolled forward, head over heels. A clump of heather broke the force of his fall. A lemming darted out. Aslak got to his feet. Glancing back, he estimated his advance on his pursuers. The baying was louder now. There was little time left. He continued his silent race. His deep-set eyes burned brightly. His gaunt features and jutting cheekbones gave him a mysterious, hieratic air. He ran on, sure-footed now, trusting to instinct, working his body hard. He smiled and quickened his breathing, feeling fleet and light, sharp-eyed, infallible. He knew he would not fall now. Knew, too, that he would not survive this mild and gentle night. They had been tracking him for a long while. It had to end.
He took in every detail of his surroundings: the high plateau, the ancient commotion transfixed in the rocks, the sinuous lakeshore describing the outline of a bear’s head, the rounded summits of the distant mountains, bare of vegetation. He could just make out the forms of the sleeping reindeer, a rushing stream. He stopped, barely out of breath. Here. Aslak stood solemnly, clutching the package, gazing at the scene. The stream tumbling into the lake, reindeer tracks threading east across the mountain, where the sun’s gleam heralded the last dawn before the long winter night. He saw a small island in one corner of the lake and made his way toward it, cutting through the dense thickets of dwarf birch with his knife. The islet was covered in heather and scrub. The barking was louder still. Aslak pulled off his boots and tossed the birch branches onto the mud, leaving no trace as he crossed the marshy tract. He reached the rocky island, clambered up, pulled aside a section of heather and buried the package under its roots. He retraced his steps and ran on. He was no longer afraid.
The dogs tore on, closer than ever. Soon, the men would emerge over the summit of the hill. Aslak gazed one last time at the lake, the mountain stream, the islet. The sun’s rays marbled the clouds with bright streaks of purple and orange. Aslak ran and knew his legs would carry him no farther. The dogs were upon him. The growling mastiffs formed a circle but left him untouched. He stood motionless. It was over. The men were there, panting and pouring sweat. They looked vile, but their eyes were filled with dread. Their tunics were torn, their footgear sodden. They leaned heavily on their sticks, waiting. One man stepped forward. Aslak looked at him. He knew. He had understood. He had seen this before. The man avoided the Laplander’s gaze. He walked around, behind Aslak.
A violent blow shattered the old nomad’s cheek and jawbone. Aslak fought for breath. Blood spurted. He dropped to his knees. The cudgel was raised for a second strike. He swayed in shock, though he had tried to brace himself. A thin man arrived on the scene, and the attacker’s gesture froze. He lowered the cudgel to his side and stepped back. The thin, wiry man was dressed all in black. He shot an icy glare at Aslak and the man with the cudgel, who recoiled and glanced away.
Two men stepped forward, relieved that the silence had been broken. They tore the Laplander’s cloak from his back.
“No sense in resisting, savage devil.”
Aslak said nothing. He did not resist, but still the men were terrified. His pain was overwhelming. He was pouring blood. The men pulled him this way and that, forced him to drop his reindeer-skin leggings, pulled off his boots and his four-cornered hat. One of them hurled it into the distance, taking care to spit on it first. The other took Aslak’s knife, its handle crafted from antler and birchwood.
“Where have you hidden it?”
The wind rose, blowing across the tundra. It did him good to feel it.
“Where, vile demon?” shouted the man in black, his voice full of menace.
Even his companions took a step back. The man in black began a silent prayer. The wind dropped and the first mosquitoes appeared. The sun secured its foothold on the flank of the mountain. Aslak’s head lolled painfully. He hardly felt the fresh blow of the cudgel as it half-shattered his temple.
* * *
The pain woke him. Near-unbearable pain. As if his head would burst. The sun was high, now. The stench was all around him. Men, women, and children were bending over him. Their teeth were rotten. They were in rags. They looked murderous, reeking of fear and ignorance. He lay stretched out on the ground. Flies had replaced the mosquitoes, clustering at his gaping wounds.
The small crowd parted and the man in black stepped forward. Pastor Noraeus.
“Where is it?”
Aslak felt feverish. His filthy tunic was soaked in blood. The smell of it dulled his senses. A woman spat at him. Children laughed. The pastor slapped the child nearest him. Aslak thought of his own son, how he had tried to cure his sickness by invoking the gods. The gods of his own people, the Sami. The children hid behind their mother.
“Where have you left it?”
A man in a sky-blue shirt stepped forward and whispered in the pastor’s ear. The pastor gave no reaction, then jerked his head. The man in blue held out his hand to Aslak. Two others caught him under the arms, heaving him to his feet. The Laplander gave a sharp cry, his face a mask of pain. The men dragged him to the low wooden house used for village business.
“See these vile icons?” The Lutheran pastor began his interrogation. “Do you recognize them?”
Aslak was barely able to breathe. The pain beat against his skull. The heat rose. His wounds itched appallingly, seething with flies. His torn cheek swarmed with life. Villagers piled into the room. The heat became suffocating.
“The swine is riddled with maggots, already,” said one of the men, grimacing in disgust. His spittle stung Aslak’s skin like a dagger point.
“Enough!” shouted the pastor. “You will be judged, Sami devil!” He thumped the thick pine-log table, calling for silence.
These country people sickened Noraeus. All he wanted was to get back to Uppsala as quickly as possible.
“Silence, all of you! Show some respect to your God and king!” His dark gaze fell on the icons of the Sami gods, and the image of Tor. “Lapp, have these icons ever brought you the slightest good?”
Aslak’s eyes were half closed. He pictured the lakes of his childhood, the mountains he had roamed so often, the dense tundra he loved to explore, the dwarf birch trees whose wood he had learned to carve.
Aslak’s eyes remained closed. He swayed slightly.
“They brought healing,” he whispered, his breath rattling. “Better than your God.”
A murmur ran around the room.
“Silence!” The pastor’s voice thundered. “Where is the hiding place? Where is it? Say it, or you burn, cursed demon. Speak, damn you. Speak!”
“To the fire! Burn him!” yelled a woman holding a baby to her wan, flaccid breast.
Other women took up the refrain.
“Burn him! Burn him!”
“Silence! Take him to the pyre. And damn his soul.”
* * *
The pastor was sweating. He wanted this over with. The stink, the proximity of the swarthy devil with his blood-soaked face, the vile, brutalized peasants—all had become intolerable to him. A trial sent by the Lord God himself. He would be sure to remind the bishop in Uppsala of his zealous service to the Lord here in the virgin territories of Lapland, when no other pastor was prepared to set foot. But for now, enough was enough.
“Sami,” he pronounced, raising his voice and his finger for silence. “You have lived a life of sin, clinging obstinately to your pagan superstitions.”
Silence fell, but the tension was stifling. The pastor drew a thick, illuminated Bible toward him and pointed at the accusing words:
“He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed!” His thunderous voice filled the company with terror.
A thickset peasant woman with a red, congested face sighed heavily and fainted, overcome by the heat. Aslak crumpled to the floor.
“This soothsayer, this peddler of lies shall die, for he has preached apostasy, denying the true doctrines of Yahweh, your Lord God.”
The men and women fell to their knees, muttering prayers. Children gazed around, wild-eyed with fear. Outside, the wind rose again, bringing oppressive gusts of warm air.
The pastor was silent now. Dogs barked. Then they, too, fell silent. A stench filled the village assembly room.
“Sentence has been confirmed by the royal courts in Stockholm. Sami, may divine and royal justice be done.”
Two filthy men took hold of Aslak and dragged him outside. The pyre stood ready, halfway between the lakeside and the ten or so wooden houses making up the village.
Aslak was bound fast to a thick pole that had been brought upriver specially, from the coast—there were no trees tall and strong enough for the purpose here inland. The pastor stood stoically while the mosquitoes sucked at his blood.
No one noticed the arrival of a young man, down at the lake, his boat loaded with skins to trade. He saw what was taking place in the village and froze. He understood the tragedy unfolding before his eyes. He knew the man on the pyre. A member of a neighboring clan.
One of the peasants set the pyre alight. The flames spread quickly, engulfing the branches. Aslak began to tremble and shake. He struggled to unstick the lid of his one good eye.
He saw the lake in front of him and the hill. He saw the silhouette of a young Sami man, standing as if transfixed. The flames licked at his body.
“He saved the others of his clan, let him save himself now!” A man grinned, blind in one eye and missing a hand.
The pastor struck him hard.
“Do not blaspheme!” he hollered, and hit the man a second time.
The peasant scuttled off, his one hand pressed to his head. “Sami, Sami, burn in hell!” he yelled as he ran. “Cursed demon!”
A child began to cry.
Suddenly, the Laplander gave a piercing shriek. He was raving now, gripped by the flames, uttering bestial moans and cries. The wailing of a man no longer human. The cry sank into a hideous rattle, then rose again in a new register, a new dimension, beyond pain. A kind of harmony, utterly alien and unexpected, born of suffering, but clear as crystal to anyone capable of listening through the torment.
“Curse him! The demon is chanting to his gods!” cried a frightened villager, pressing his hands to his ears. The pastor stood by, impassive, searching the Laplander’s face as if, in the heat of the fire, the man might suddenly reveal the whereabouts of the thing he had been sent to find.
Aslak’s cry petrified the young Sami in his boat. Afraid but fascinated, he recognized the guttural chant of a joïk, a Sami song. He was the only one present who could understand the words. The song transported him to another world. The words were fragmented now, tumbling out fast. With his dying breath, the condemned man was doing his duty, passing on what he knew.
Then the singing ceased. Silence fell. The young Sami was silent, too. He turned back the way he had come, his head ringing with the dead man’s screams. His blood had turned to ice. There could be no mistake. He knew now what he must do. And after him, his son. And his son’s son.
Monday, January 10
9:30 a.m., Central Lapland
IT WAS THE most extraordinary day of the year, pregnant with the hopes of humanity. Tomorrow, the sun would be reborn. For forty days, the men and women of the vidda had survived, their souls huddled against the dark, deprived of the source of life.
The taint of original sin, thought Klemet Nango. Why impose such suffering on ordinary human beings otherwise? Forty days without shadow, crawling like insects upon the face of the earth.
And what if the sun failed to show its face tomorrow? Klemet smiled to himself. He was a rational man after all, a police officer. Of course the sun would be reborn. The local daily paper had even proclaimed the hour of the lifting of the curse in its morning edition. Now that was progress. How could his ancestors have coped without the Finnmark Dagblad to inform them of the return of the sun at winter’s end? Perhaps they never knew what it was to hope.
Tomorrow, from 11:14 to 11:41 a.m., Klemet would be a man again, casting his own shadow by the light of the sun. And the day after that, he would hold on to his shadow for forty-two minutes more. Things happened fast once the sun was minded to return.
The mountains would stand proud once more, sculpted in sharp relief. Sunlight would pour into the depths of the valleys, bringing their sleeping vistas back to life, awakening the quiet, solemn vastness of the semidesert covering the high plateaux of central Sápmi—the region’s traditional name.
For now, the sun was a mere glimmer of hope, reflected orange and pink in the clouds scudding above the blue-tinted snow on the mountain tops.
As always, gazing at the spectacle of the landscape, Klemet thought of his uncle Nils Ante, renowned as one of the most gifted joïk singers in the region. A joïk singer and a poet: the hypnotic rise and fall of his uncle’s chanting told of the wonders and mysteries of their Arctic world.
Nils Ante’s mesmerizing joïks had been the lullabies of Klemet’s childhood, magical tales worth all the storybooks read by Norwegian children, safe at home. Klemet had had no need of books. He had Uncle Nils Ante. But Klemet had never been a good singer, and mere words, he had decided as a child, could not describe nature as he saw it, all around him.
Sometimes, as now on patrol in the vast, empty plateau of the vidda, Klemet allowed himself a brief, nostalgic pause for thought. But he said nothing. Awed by the memory of his uncle’s joïks, he was incapable of poetry.
“Klemet? Can you take my picture? With the clouds behind.”
His young colleague brandished a camera, retrieved from a pocket in her navy-blue snowsuit.
“Honestly, Nina, is this really a good time?”
“Is this really a good time to stand there daydreaming?” she retorted, holding out the camera.
Klemet grunted. Nina was always ready with an answer, the sort of reply that generally occurred to him when it was too late. He pulled off his mittens. Might as well get it over with. The clouds had thinned, and the cold bit harder still. The temperature was close to minus 16°F.
Nina removed her sealskin and fox-fur chapka, shaking her blonde hair loose. She sat astride her snowmobile with her back to the speckled pink-and-yellow clouds, and aimed a broad smile at the lens. She wasn’t stunningly beautiful, but she was charming and attractive. She had big, expressive blue eyes that betrayed every nuance of emotion—a trait Klemet often found useful. He took the photograph slightly off-center, on principle. Nina had joined the Reindeer Police three months ago, and this was her first patrol. Until now, she had sat behind a desk at the station in Kiruna, the local headquarters over on the Swedish side, and after that in Kautokeino, here in Norway.
Irritated by his colleague’s constant requests to have her picture taken, Klemet always made sure he poked a fingertip into the corner of the photograph. Every time Nina showed him the result, she would smile and explain sweetly, without fail, that he should be careful to keep his fingers to the side, out of the way. As if he was ten years old. Her tone irritated him beyond words. He had given up with the finger thing, found something else instead.
A light breeze was blowing, instant torture in this cold. Klemet glanced at the GPS on his snowmobile, a reflex. He knew the mountains by heart.
Klemet climbed onto his snowmobile and set off, followed by Nina. At the bottom of the hill, he followed the bed of an invisible stream, frozen solid under the snow. He ducked sideways, avoiding the low branches of the birch trees, then turned to make sure Nina was still following. But, he was forced to admit, she had already mastered her machine to near perfection. They rode on for another hour and a half, threading through the hills and valleys. The gradient steepened as they approached the summit of Ragesvarri. Klemet stood up astride his snowmobile and accelerated. Nina followed. Two minutes later they pulled up, drinking in the complete silence.
Klemet removed his helmet, worn over his chapka, and took out his binoculars. Standing on the step plate of his snowmobile, one knee resting on the seat, he scanned the surrounding landscape, peering at the hilltop ridges, looking for moving specks on the snow. Then he took out his thermos and offered Nina a coffee. She struggled forward, up to her thighs in the dry, powdery snow. Klemet’s eyes glittered mischievously, but he held back a smile. Revenge for the endless photos.
“Looks quiet enough, doesn’t it?” asked Nina, between gulps of coffee.
“Seems that way, yes. Johann Henrik told me his herd had begun to disperse. His reindeer are already short of food. And if they cross the river Aslak will blow his top, if I know him, which I do—stubborn as a rock.”
“Aslak? The one who still lives in a tent? Do you think their herds will mix?”
“Reckon they already have.”
Klemet’s cell phone rang. He took a moment to wedge it inside the earflap of his chapka.
“Reindeer Police, Klemet Nango.”
Klemet listened for some time, cradling his coffee cup in both hands, grunting occasionally between sips.
“Yep, we’ll be there in a few hours. Or maybe tomorrow. And you’re sure there’s no sign of him?”
He swallowed another mouthful of coffee, listening to the reply, then ended the call.
“So finally, Mattis’s reindeer are the first to go walkabout. Again. That was Johann Henrik. Says he saw thirty of them on his land. They must have made it across the river. Let’s go take a look.”
5:30 a.m., Kautokeino
THE MUSEUM’S ENTRANCE was broken wide open. Snow swirled through the gaping double doors. On the floor, shattered glass mingled with flakes already freezing hard in the icy wind, lit by a shaft of light from a snowmobile outside.
The driver lunged forward clumsily, weighed down by his heavy snowsuit. He rubbed his cheeks hard, struggling to contain his mounting apprehension.
Helmut Juhl and his wife had come to this forgotten corner of the Norwegian Far North in the pretourist era. In Kautokeino their fascination for Sami culture, and their talent as jewelry makers, had found a place to flourish.
Patiently over the years, the couple had built up one of the most remarkable sites in the country. Little by little, a group of ten asymmetrical buildings had sprung up, clustered one against the other, on the hillside overlooking the valley. Helmut unhooked a flashlight from the lobby wall and began the painful process of taking stock. His “forbidden city,” as some dubbed it, had shocked some of the local aesthetes and Sami culture vultures, while arousing suspicion among Sami artisans. Helmut had learned their silversmithing techniques and become one of the region’s leading experts. By creating an ambitious, dedicated exhibition space, he had restored the status of an ancient art long since dispersed by nomadism. Helmut knew he had won the first battle when Isak Mikku Sara, chief of the Vuorje siida, a powerful clan west of Karasjok, had brought him his own childhood cradle, carved in birchwood, so that it could be displayed in the pavilion devoted to traditional Sami lifestyles. Now, he had one of the finest collections in northern Europe.
Helmut crossed the second room, a spacious gallery devoted to collections from central Asia. The silver jewelry and pots were all there. Everything seemed in order.
The silence was broken by the distant, unmistakable crunch of boots over broken glass. The footsteps had to be coming from the lobby. He paused to listen. The faint sound echoed through the galleries. Helmut held his breath, listening hard. Almost without thinking, he reached for an Afghan knife hanging on the wall, and extinguished his flashlight.
Someone was calling him by name. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Here! In the Afghan gallery!”
He replaced the knife. Seconds later he saw a thickly swaddled silhouette struggling toward him. The local reporter, Tomas Mikkelsen, rotund in his tightly stretched snowsuit.
“Tomas. Good God, what are you doing here?”
“Berit called me. She saw a scooter heading off about half an hour ago.”
Helmut moved on through the museum galleries. He was perplexed. Nothing seemed to be missing. Perhaps some drunken kid had shattered the front door? He reached the last gallery, known as the “white room,” arrayed with Sami art treasures—the finest jewelry in gleaming silver, beautifully worked and chased. Then Helmut saw the door to the museum’s reserve collection and stores. It stood open, with the handle wrenched off. Someone had struggled to open it. His stomach clenched tight.
Seconds later, the neon strip lights flickered into life, flooding the space with raw, white light. The huge room was lined with storage boxes, numbered and arranged on shelves. A series of worn pinewood tables occupied the central area. Everything was in perfect order. So far, so good. Helmut looked again at the first shelf. Two boxes held figurines of camels, carved from horn in a workshop in Kandahar. All present and correct. But the shelf above was empty. His stomach clenched tighter still. That shelf could not be empty. The casket had disappeared.
The reporter spotted the German curator’s horrified look.
Helmut’s mouth had fallen open, apparently in shock.
“Helmut, what’s missing?”
The museum director stared at Tomas, closed his mouth, and swallowed. “The drum.” He stammered the words.
11:30 a.m., Central Sápmi
NINA CROUCHED LOW on her snowmobile, the accelerator handle turned fully forward. Dwarf birch twigs lashed her visor. The powerful machine climbed the steep slope with ease. A thick layer of snow softened the relief, making progress easier. Mattis’s trailer nestled in a dip halfway up a second, gentler hill. She reached it just a few seconds after Klemet. It never ceased to amaze her that the reindeer breeders were able to survive in these mobile shelters for weeks on end, in the depths of winter, in temperatures as low as minus 31°F, sometimes even minus 40, in complete isolation, dozens of miles from the nearest village. The wind had risen now, blasting unimpeded across the bare, empty mountains, but Mattis’s trailer stood in a relatively sheltered spot just below the summit. Nina removed her helmet, adjusted her chapka, and took a closer look at the trailer. Part caravan, part shipping container, but smaller. Smoke issued from a tin stovepipe. The trailer was white and mounted on broad runners, which allowed it to be towed through the snow. The sides were reinforced with metal sheets. It was ugly, but aesthetic appeal counted for little out here in the tundra.
Nina looked around at the clutter outside the shelter: the breeder’s snowmobile; a rudimentary workbench for cutting wood, with an ax planted in a log; jerricans and plastic containers; two metal storage boxes loaded onto a snowmobile trailer; lengths of plastic-coated rope scattered everywhere; even the skin and head of a reindeer tossed in front of the trailer, its blood staining the snow. The animal’s viscera were strewn about in a mess of torn rubbish bags, doubtless the work of a hungry fox. Nina stepped through the narrow doorway behind Klemet, who had entered without knocking.
Mattis sat up slowly, rubbing his cheeks.
“Bores.” Klemet greeted him in the traditional way. As usual, he had taken advantage of the reliable cell signal at the nearby lake to call ahead and give Mattis advance warning of their visit.
Nina stepped forward in turn and bowed slightly toward Mattis.
“Hello. Nina Nansen. I’m new to the Reindeer Police: Patrol P9, with Klemet.”
- "Against the backdrop of the polar night, ancient religious traditions, and the fierce rivalries of reindeer-herders, Olivier Truc's remarkable, triumphant thriller is far more than a colourful stroll through an exotic culture."—Télérama magazine, "Best Crime Novels of 2012"
- "It's always a pleasure to encounter a really unusual setting for crime fiction, but novelty alone is no good - it needs a decent story to go with it. Luckily, Forty Days Without Shadow by Olivier Truc scores both ways...This dense but tense thriller is full of local colour."—Morning Star (UK)
- "Olivier Truc's debut novel is a fascinating thriller by a writer who is already a master of the genre."—Librairie Garin
- "A beautiful thriller that carries us away to a mysterious land."—L'Unita
- "A powerful 'Nordic' thriller... At last, a French writer has succeeded in reviving the genre, in fine style. I can't remember the last time I read a truly dark, gripping crime novel by a home-grown author."—Librairie l'usage du monde
- "A unique setting, the snow, the freezing cold, reindeer, unforgettable characters...make this novel a must-read book."—Il Fatto Quotidiano
- "A dark, highly original novel."—Livres Hebdo
- "The bone-numbing cold of a snowy vastness underlines a chilling story. 8 stars."—Peterborough Telegraph (UK)
- "A really well-written, masterly novel, and a tremendous pleasure to read. Original, fascinating, with no concessions to surface "exoticism". A terrifically successful crime novel."—Librairie L'Atelier
- "This is a superb story....Truc stands out in his masterful depiction of characters."—La Razón
- "Deep historical research and in-depth first-hand knowledge allow Truc to accomplish an impeccable backdrop, a true immersion into this little-known indigenous culture."—Diario del Alto Aragón
- "An inspiring crime novel out of the ordinary...an original and fascinating setting."—Verdens Gang
- On Sale
- Nov 18, 2014
- Hachette Audio