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Sense of place is crucial to Hewson’s novels

Some novelists display a real talent for capturing a place in words and then bringing that “little postage stamp of native soil,” as William Faulkner called it, to their readers.

Pat Conroy’s Charleston novels evoked that historic city’s streets and buildings, the odor of its tidewater marshes and estuaries, the sounds of the city’s church bells, the ferocious heat of its summers, the taste of oysters and shrimp. In his Dave Robicheaux suspense novels, James Lee Burke takes us into the heart of Louisiana, its bayous and cotton fields, its music, its mix of Catholicism and age-old superstitions, its cool dawns and blazing noondays, the mingled smells of brackish water, boiled crawfish and wild flowers. In The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings writes of the backwoods of Florida in its pre-tourism days, of green pastures, of scruffy pines and magnolia, of fetter-bush and sparkleberry, of sunrise “like a vast copper skillet being drawn to hang among the branches.”

Then there’s British author David Hewson.

In his Nick Costa series, Hewson brings alive the city of Rome. As Costa and his buddies in the police department work to bring criminals to justice, we follow them through Roman streets and alleyways that are as alive and vivid on the page as I remember them from a visit to the Eternal City four years ago. Here are the fragrances of seared veal and various sauces drifting from taverns and homes, the tangle of traffic and the clamor of car horns, the scent of incense and candles in the ancient churches, the dusky evenings when natives and tourists stroll along the Tiber or sip wine in outdoor cafes, the exuberance of the Italians themselves. 

In his latest novel, Devil’s Fjord (Crème de la Crime, 2019, 283 pages), Hewson snatches us out of sunny Italy and deposits us on the bleak shores of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago that is part of today’s Kingdom of Denmark. Here Hewson recreates the rough terrain, the cliffs and rugged hills, the sudden storms that can slam a boat into the rocky shore, rooftops made from turf that sprout flowers and require mowing, the stink left by the grind — grindadrap in Faroese — when fishermen drive a pod of whales to the beaches and kill them for the meat and blubber. 

So how does this guy, who is neither Italian or Faroese, do it? How does he conjure up these settings and make them as real to us as our own backyards?

Research and talent are at play here, of course, but Hewson and other writers like him also possess the eyes of an artist, employing words and sentences as their palette and brush to bring landscape and weather, flora and fauna, to the page. In Devil’s Fjord we feel as if we are on a tour of these islands as well in the midst of a crime novel. In addition, we learn some of the dark myths of this strange place, the techniques used in the grind to kill a pod of whales, the desperate poverty and the fierce pride, the struggle for sustenance, the abandonment of the old ways of life and the islands themselves by the young people seeking a different world. Here, too, we encounter men and woman who hid their thoughts from outsiders and their tears from each other, who value independence above security, who wear masks when in the public square, who are stoics one and all in the face of death and catastrophe. 

Now to the story:

Tristan and Elsebeth Haraldsen are newcomers to the tiny island village of Djevulsjord. Tristan has experienced some minor heart problems, and he and his wife have bought a cabin near the town, seeking peace and quiet in Tristan’s semiretirement from the police department in Torshavn. They are in their fifties, childless, still very much in love with each other, ready for a new adventure. Tristan holds a part-time position as a District Sheriff for fishing, a post that includes supervising the grind.

The couple faces exclusion from this tight community, but when two adolescent brothers, Jonas and Benjamin, run away and disappear into the folds, tucks and caves of the hills around the town, Tristan and Elsebeth find themselves involved in the thick of the search for them. Hanna Olsen, another police officer who is in many ways also an outsider, becomes their ally in this search, while Aksel Hojaard, their superior, exhibits a cold indifference as to whether the boys are found.

As Tristan, Elsebeth and Hanna deepen their investigation, they enter into the darker recesses of Djevulsjord. They discover that Tristan’s predecessor died from a terrible accident. The grandfather of Benjamin and Jonas lost his own son to a mysterious fall from the cliffs. Hanna’s brother, a drug addict who had supposedly visited the island at about the same time that accident occurred, has also disappeared. A prominent member of the community, the merciless Dorotea Thomsen, has the villagers at her mercy, lending them money and demanding extravagant favors in return. A wealthy artist, an advocate of animal rights who despises the cruelty she finds in the whale killings, threatens Tristan for his supervision of the grind, but then hands Elsebeth vital information regarding the boys and a mysterious man roaming the mountains above her shack. 

To say more about Devil’s Fjord might reveal too much of the story, though I am compelled to add that the last five pages of this novel were shocking, like some crack to the skull we never see coming. In a story filled with convoluted events, Hewson deftly adds one final twist, stunning his readers with the sickening realization that evil still lurks in the streets and hillsides of Djevulsjord.

In an “Author’s Note,” Hewson writes “This story comes from the imagination and in no way is a depiction of life in the real Faroe Islands.”

Let us hope that is the case.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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