Book Review: Death of a Nightingale

Death of a Nightingale is a Danish mystery about corruption in modern-day Ukraine.

The third Nina Borg mystery by the Danish writing team of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, Death of a Nightingale explores the life of Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Rina.  Their story provides a springboard to explore not only corruption in modern-day Ukraine, but also the history of Stalinist terror during the Holodomor.  The opening chapter of the novel tells readers, “In Stalin Land, Stalin decides what is true and what is a lie.” (p. 3)

As the novel begins, twenty-six year old Natasha Doroshenko has been accused of the attempted murder of her abusive Danish fiancée.  Without warning, she is taken to the Copenhagen police station from her prison cell for interrogation. She originally fled Ukraine after the mysterious death of her journalist husband once she realized that her life was in danger because of what she knew about powerful corrupt Ukrainians. When she sees police officials from Ukraine outside the Danish police station, she knows that she must flee or face certain death.  While she is on the loose, her Danish fiancée is murdered in a horrific fashion. Terrified, Natasha tries to get her daughter Rina before the corrupt Ukrainian officials do.

Meanwhile, Rina who suffers from chronic asthma is being cared for by neurotic Nina Borg, a Danish Red Cross nurse who works with immigrants in legal limbo.  Borg’s obsession with helping the vulnerable has jeopardized her personal life leading to her divorce.   She suffers from a “compulsion to save the ones no one else wanted to bother with.” (p. 166) Her involvement with Natasha and Rina leads readers on a wild ride which reveals a sinister and violent trail of corruption in Ukrainian society, business and government.

Running parallel to the story of Natasha is the story of Oxana and Olga, two sisters living in Ukraine in 1934.  Their narrative provides the roots of the central mystery of the novel. They experience the horrific Holodomor created by Stalin’s collectivization policies. Their family is destroyed, not just by hunger, but also by an unbelievable betrayal. Oxana becomes the “nightingale” when she chooses to “sing” for the Communist authorities.  Readers will be shocked by the portrayal of historical events in Ukraine and the final clever twist which connects Olga and Oxana to the present-day heroine, Natasha Doroshenko.

The strength of this novel is its exploration of both modern-day and Stalinist Ukrainian society through a Danish lens. The novel reveals the poverty and desperation of modern-day Ukrainian refugees as well as the corruption and oppression they are trying to escape in Ukraine. This elaborately plotted and fast paced mystery alternates between a murder mystery in modern-day Denmark and a historical mystery from the time of Stalin’s Holodomor. Both stories revolve around an incredible abuse of power by the ruling class.

Scandinavian crime fiction traditionally has a heavy dose of social conscience. Death of a Nightingale focuses on the powerless newcomers to Denmark. There is also a strong feminist theme running through this novel. Natasha is a desperate single mother who is a victim of both physical abuse as well as psychological terror when her past comes back to destroy what is left of her family.

The novel’s storyline is very complex. Natasha’s story unfolds slowly in the midst of numerous secondary characters.  Both Nina Borg and Natasha Doroshenko are strong and interesting but not necessarily likeable characters.  They have major psychological issues arising from their complicated histories. Running parallel to the modern-day mystery is the shocking story of Oxana and Olga in Stalinist Ukraine. The two stories seem unrelated, but come together at the end of the novel. It is well worth the wait!  Death of a Nightingale may be a complex novel, but it is both thrilling and shocking at the same time.  Readers will be sure to seek out the first two novels in the Nina Borg series after reading this novel!

In 2007, Lene Kaaberbøl was a widely published Danish writer of children’s books while Agnete Friis was making a living as a journalist.  They first met to discuss collaborating on a children’s book.  Since 2008, the two writers have written three mystery novels together: The Boy in the Suitcase (2011), Invisible Murder (2013), and Death of a Nightingale (2013), which was named one of the Top 10 mysteries for Fall 2013 by Publisher’s Weekly.

Death of a Nightingale is available in both hardcover and ebook versions at Chapters and Amazon.

– Reviewed by Myra Junyk

Kaaberbøl, Lene and Agnete Friis.
Translated from the Danish by Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Soho Press Inc., 2013. 329 p. ISBN 978-1-61695-440-6
Available in hardcover and ebook versions at Chapters and Amazon

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