Book review

'Death of a Nightingale,' by Lene Kaaberol and Agnete Friis.

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Nina Borg, a Danish Red Cross nurse, returns in the third novel of a series that began with the acclaimed "Boy in the Suitcase." A compulsive do-gooder whose missions have jeopardized and marginalized her family to the breaking point, Nina now works at a Danish refugee camp for exiles and immigrants in limbo who are awaiting either deportation or asylum.

By Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis.
Soho Crime ($26.95).

Nina becomes involved with Natasha Doroshenko and her asthmatic daughter Rina. Natasha is a Ukrainian mail-order bride, soon widowed, who fled to Denmark after the murder of her journalist husband, and ends up with an abusive Danish fiance Natasha whom she attempts to murder when she witnesses his pedophilic impulses toward Rina.

The book opens with Natasha already in custody for the attack on her fiance, en route to police headquarters in Copenhagen for interrogation. She escapes the Danish police, and while she is on the loose; the fiance she tried to kill is murdered, making her the prime suspect.

The whole set-up of this scenario is as tortured as it sounds. It takes too long for the reader to sort out the story. Who is the fiance again? The husband? Chronology and understanding are sacrificed for whiplash-inducing scene changes. We are with Nina (an intrepid if humorless crusader with OCD tendencies), then with the escaped Natasha (a resourceful character with fierce maternal instincts).

Natasha's perspective not only includes her present-day fugitive story -- but two separate flashback stories as well. Don't get too ensconced with either female character, for the story then turns to Soren, a Danish security officer who teams up with a Ukrainian police officer abandoned by the cohort he had traveled with to Denmark for the purpose of interrogating Natasha.

And if these plot convolutions weren't enough, interspersed among the present day narratives are retrospective scenes in Stalinist Ukraine in 1934. These flashback scenes detail a landscape as horrific and gripping as one would expect. The seemingly unrelated stories, with nary a common thread, exist side by side to the point of exasperation. While it is expected that the stories will converge, the wait is interminable.

Apparently, this is how two authors collaborate on a work of fiction: Create two side-by-side narratives that collide with amazing coincidence in the final chapters. This type of seesaw storytelling works well only if the reader can perceive the tapestry being woven.

By the end of "Death of a Nightingale," it's only a relief to have the complete picture. The journey to arrive at that place was marked by too many secondary characters, often indistinguishable from each other, and too many tangential story lines. As for the heroine, it's hard to root for a woman, regardless of baggage, who withholds her attention from her own children in favor of the downtrodden.

We're not talking benign neglect, for which any adolescent would be grateful. No protagonist, female or male should get a pass for unthinkingly placing family in harm's way as Nina has done several times. Nina prides herself on her "calm efficiency" in an emergency, and at times she is bravely resourceful. But other times, she is blindly impulsive and thoughtless.

In crisis mode and searching for a missing child, Nina forgets that she doesn't have her cell phone with her not once, but twice. None of Nina's traits have been presented in a way to make her interesting. It's not necessary to like or even respect a main character. It's essential at least to like reading about her.

In "Death of a Nightingale," Nina starts to develop some self-awareness regarding the choices that resulted in the loss of her husband and children, who make only brief appearances in this installment.

The worthwhile social issues tackled by the book, the reflections on cultural differences rooted in history and the luxury of security (or lack thereof), and the reminders of Stalin's Great Purge are drowned in a storytelling style more suited to a movie script than a novel. Sorting out a complicated story with a large cast of characters doesn't have to be easy. It just has to be worth it in the end.




Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (

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