Sara Blaedel is about to invade the United States. Dubbed “Crime Queen” since her first mystery was published in her native Denmark in 2004, Sara’s work—her second book, Only One Life—has finally landed on America’s shores. And her timing couldn’t be better. Following the success of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy with Lisbeth Salander, as well as Wallender, the PBS series starring Kenneth Branagh based on the popular books by Henning Mankell, and Camilla Lackberg’s cerebral police procedurals, Americans love, love, LOVE these dark and brooding mysteries set in the Nordic countries. They are about to fall in love with Sara Blaedel.
“Ten years ago, crime fiction wasn’t that popular in Scandinavia at all,” Sara said. “When something turns out to be a success, lots more are coming. If you have a very, very good tennis plan, then lots of people want to play tennis. That’s the same with crime fiction in Scandinavia. Lots of new ones are starting up in the genre.”
Interviewed by phone from Los Angeles where she was enjoying a vacation with friends, Sara talked about setting murder mysteries in Denmark. “We have serial killers here in L.A.; it doesn’t happen that often in Denmark,” she said. “At the same time, people have that dark side and they have the same evil minds. The most dangerous part of building up a crime fiction character is when you cannot see that evil part in a person. Often the very serious crimes in Denmark are exactly like that; you cannot see, you’re not prepared.”
Sara’s first novel, Green Dust, introduced readers to Louise Rick, who graduated with honors from the National Police College, and became a homicide detective in Copenhagen. Louise’s best friend from high school is Camilla Lind, a journalist who works for the Copenhagen newspaper, Morgenavisen. Green Dust hasn’t been translated into English—yet—so readers in the U.S. must pick up the series with the second entry, Call Me Princess, or Only One Life, released here in July.
In Only One Life, Samra, a young girl from Jordan, is found in a watery grave, weighed down with a piece of concrete tied around her waist. Did Samra’s father kill her because she had dishonored the family? Only One Life is an ambitious book, much more than a murder mystery. Sara delves into the controversial issue of honor killings, when family members condone, even support the killing of a woman whose actions have embarrassed the family. In Denmark, as in other Western countries, young people who immigrate are caught between two cultures, trying to assimilate while holding onto old values. It’s a delicate balancing act particularly for young women whose lives back in Middle Eastern countries are closely monitored.
While researching Only One LIfe, Sara visited police headquarters in Copenhagen. The police official she met with dismissed her original plot as “too boring” and encouraged her to write about honor killings. Sara was initially reluctant, thinking the topic was too political, but agreed to meet with the police inspector who had handled an honor killing of a young girl from Pakistan whose body was dumped in a harbor. After a nine month investigation, the girl’s father was arrested and charged with her murder.
“It took him only three minutes to convince me,” she said. “I had to write about it. There are things going on in Denmark. We have very big problems, not problems with Danish and Muslims, people getting together, because most of the time that’s very good and works fine. But for the young people who really want to try to fit into the Danish culture, that makes a lot of trouble in the family. That was the interesting part for me to research.”
Only One Life came out five years ago in Denmark. One of Sara’s first readings attracted a large number of people from the Muslim community, including a young woman who sat in the third row. “There was a break in the middle of my speech and then after the break she disappeared,” Sara said. Following the event, Sara was walking across the parking lot to her hotel when she was approached by a young Muslim man who asked her to sign a copy of the book, praising her for showing both sides of the controversy. “I got goosebumps on my arms,” she said. “It was the best review I ever got.” The book was for the young Muslim woman who, Sara learned, was hiding from her family and living undercover to escape an arranged marriage.
Sara doesn’t shy away from dealing with tough topics. The fourth book in the series, Farewell to Freedom, deals with human trafficking and how the Eastern European mafia now controls most of the prostitution in Copenhagen. “I’m not writing about these topics to provoke; I’m writing about it because it’s going on,” she said. “[Human trafficking] is the most cruel crime and evil crime we have these days.” The Copenhagen police now have a special unit that deals with human trafficking.
Talk to Sara about Louise and Camilla, and they emerge as real people, not fictional characters. “Louise was very clear to me to begin with because she looks exactly like one of my close friends,” she said. “The skills that I put into her are most of what I hoped if I had been a cop.”
There’s a scene in Green Dust, a mere ten pages into the book, when Louise flashes back to a time when she broke down telling a young woman that her husband had been killed. “She had to leave and her older colleague, a man of course, said, `Okay, if you can’t stand this, maybe you shouldn’t be a cop.’ After I wrote that scene I could feel it so clearly myself, how she reacted telling that young woman that her husband was killed. I couldn’t let her be hardcore; she had that reaction. I was thinking—whoa—that is a very bad beginning in a crime fiction story, because if she can’t be a cop, maybe I should just write Fifty Shades of Gray.” Sara paused and laughed. She consulted one of the Copenhagen police officers, asking him if she should delete that section. “And he said, `Sara, I have to tell you something. If she didn’t have that empathy, she will never be a good investigator. And she could never get a job here.’ That was really interesting to me.”
Camilla’s role in the mysteries is to see the crime from another point of view. “I wanted to tell it from the police angle and also from the human angle, because Camilla can go to mothers, suspects,” she explained. “It makes it possible for me to come all the way around a crime case.” In Only One Life Camilla befriends the mother of the crime victim, even protecting her from an angry crowd.
“In the Copenhagen Police Department, they were telling me stories about how it impacts crime-solving investigations, that the journalist [who arrives] at the crime scene at almost the same time the police arrive, can sometimes be very, very helpful and sometimes it can mess it all up,” she said. Police in America are rarely so understanding about journalists at crime scenes.
Sara has dyslexia and struggled as a child. “It took me a long time to read a book,” she said. “I was a little bit shy, I wasn’t a very outgoing person.” Sara’s mother loved Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. “My best moments were when I was reading crime fiction.” She held many jobs, working as a waitress, graphic artist, even started her own publishing company. “I never had that dream that one day I will be a crime writer.”
Sara’s husband is a model builder, creating structures that are used in exhibits and in TV commercials. They have one son, 15, and two daughters, 18 and 21, from her husband’s previous marriage.
Before she writes one word, Sara spends about three months doing extensive research, often taking photos from the internet of possible settings and characters. Perhaps because of her dyslexia, Sara describes herself as a visual person. “I never use the photos because they could turn up as horrible people in my books,” she said with a laugh. “It’s very clear for me that the stories do better when I can see it in pictures. Before I start to write, I know the people.”
When she’s in the midst of a book, Sara admitted she’s not easy to live with. “Sometimes I’m in a bad mood,” she said. “I’m trying to put myself so much into it, that it takes me some time to get out of it. If I’m quiet, my son will say, `oh, mama, did you kill someone today?’ Was it a bad thing going on in my story today. It’s how it works for me. The story is almost more real than real life at the time I’m writing.”
Sara hopes her books may tempt her readers to visit Denmark. “It’s so beautiful in the summertime,” she said. “Copenhagen is wonderful; it’s not just a slogan.”
For more information go to the website for Sara Blaedel