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the tenant

13 june 2021

In Danish, Katrine Engberg's detective novel The Tenant is called Krokodillevogteren, which means something like "The Crocodile Keeper." This image has something to do, we learn, with the little bird of fable that cleans the crocodile's jaws but may end up as the crocodile's lunch. Evidently Simon & Schuster figured American writers would think The Crocodile Keeper was some sort of zoo story, so they substituted nearly the blandest title a committee could think of.

Early on, we get the idea that The Tenant is going to be meta-literary. Characters keep wondering if they're really in a book. The murder, reflects detective Jeppe Kørner, is of the variety that only happens in novels: "a woman-on-the-forest-floor case" (33). No witnesses, no trail leading to a suspect, no hint of burgeoning violence beforehand. Except attractive, vivacious, young, but heartworn Julie Stender ("the most tired cliché in the world," as someone observes, 156) wasn't found on the forest floor; she was found in her flat in central Copenhagen, not far from the university, the Tivoli amusement park, and central police headquarters itself.

Julie is the title tenant; her landlady Esther de Laurenti is a retired professor hoping to break into writing detective novels. In a Stranger than Fiction twist that isn't much of a spoiler because it gathers over the book's first hundred pages, we learn that Esther had written Julie's murder in great detail before it occurred. Did somebody act out Esther's scenario?

More bodies start to accumulate and I'll stop with the spoilers at this point. If its plot and its postmodernism are at times contrived, The Tenant has strengths too: vivid and diverse characters, drawn from a range of social and psychological types; compelling sidebar stories (Jeppe Kørner's divorce and depression, another Scandinavian Krimi cliché, are well-drawn).

Sequels are on the way – one, The Butterfly House, appeared in English earlier this year – and there are several directions Engberg could take her series. One, à la Tana French, would be to rotate the focus of the stories around the police team (which is presented as an egalitarian bunch who take turn leading investigations). Jeppe's principal partner in The Tenant is Anette Werner, as energetic as he is depressive. There are others we learn less about, but they might be principals in later novels. There's an older, more phlegmatic cop named Falck, and the forensics guy Nyboe, and a younger hotshot named Larsen, and the medical examiner Clausen, and the inevitable super-Internet expert Saidani – detective novels are convinced that it takes super-hacker skills to look at posts on Instagram. Or we could just stay with Jeppe, who is keenly imagined.

Engberg, Katrine. The Tenant. [Krokodillevogteren, 2016.] Translated by Tara Chace. New York: Scout [Simon & Schuster], 2020. PT 8177.15 .N44K7613