Lars Winkler is a detective’s detective: recently separated, semi-not-involved with a coworker, semi-involved with a nurse, and occasionally he solves mysteries on the side. Also he’s Danish. So there’s that.
Full disclosure: I received this as an ARC from House of Anansi Press in exchange for a review. You too can send me free books, and I will review them (even if you don’t want me to).
The Scream of the Butterfly is the second novel in the Lars Winkler series, but it’s easy to jump into this book with no prior knowledge. Jakob Melander builds out both Lars and the supporting cast even as he flashes back to events from 16 years previous. Lars must unravel the murder of the Mayor of Copenhagen, but his mother, the finance minister in the national government, is determined to cover up anything that could jeopardize her party’s standing in the upcoming election. Intense! Political! Drama!
So this isn’t just a mystery or a crime thriller: it’s a political crime thriller! Normally I don’t read those (I’m not much for straight-up crime thrillers either), and I tend to approach them with a certain amount of scepticism. I want to be clear about this upfront, because some of my criticisms of this book might not be criticisms in your eyes if you’re a fan of this genre.
I was impressed by the way Melander manages multiple plots, both developing them independently and tying them together in time for the climax. In addition to the murder of Mogens Winther-Sørenson, Lars has to figure out the story of Serafine, a trans woman and witness to the crime. This all seems to have something to do with a month in 1999 when Mogens took a leave of absence from being mayor—but every time Lars tries to find any information on this, he comes up empty. Meanwhile, Serafine is on the run, people are hunting her, and the murderer is still at large. To solve the case, Lars and his colleagues must investigate a refugee centre from a decade ago and deal with a traitor in their department.
It’s worth spending some time talking about Serafine and Melander’s portrayal of a transgender person. In many ways, Serafine is as much of a main character in this book as Lars—she receives quite a bit of the narrator’s time, and the novel itself is called Serafine in the original Danish. She is connected to Mogens beyond being the last person to see him alive. Indeed, Serafine’s story and relationship with the victim is a great example of the types of causal conundrums police face when solving crimes. Distrustful of cops, Serafine spends much of the story on the run, trying to survive while being pursued by a mysterious villain, and searching for the money and treatment she needs to feel more comfortable in her body.
As a cis-man, I don’t want to claim any expertise on transgender issues. So I’ll just say that I find Melander’s portrayal of Serafine a sympathetic and sensitive one. When Melander first reveals Serafine is transgender, the characters start bandying about words like transsexual and transvestite—but they are quickly corrected. Lars, for all his other faults, accepts that Serafine is a woman and should be addressed using feminine pronouns—because even if she has the body of a man, that’s how she wants to be addressed, so why not? Melander attempts to convey Serafine’s distress over being unable to continue her hormone replacement therapy, of feeling trapped in a body that fights her at every corner. [Editor’s note, Aug 2020: Obviously this review was written long before I came out to myself. If I were to read this book now I would be looking at this from a very different perspective as a trans woman!]
I only wish that the other characters were half as well-developed as Serafine. There are numerous supporting characters in The Scream of the Butterfly. Indeed, I like how Lars works constructively with his colleagues. Although there is friction between him and Ulrik and between him and Sanne, they remain professional. This is a nice change from crime thrillers that capitalize on manufactured drama. Unfortunately, these supporting characters are paper-thin to the point of being stock. As I mentioned above, one of the subplots of the book involve a leak in the department, and the lack of character development means we never get a sense of the motives behind the person who is ultimately responsible (and really, it’s hard for us to guess who might be responsible beforehand, because all the characters seem the same).
Similarly, the motives of the murderer fail to impress. Melander builds the mystery to an intense and confrontational climax between Lars and the killer, but it’s fraught with cliché. At one point the killer has the upper hand and literally says, “I suppose you have a right to know” before explaining the reason he killed Mogens. And as helpful as this spoon-fed exposition might be, the explanation itself is unsatisfying.
Of course, if crime thrillers are your thing, then you may be more tolerant of these tropes than I am. The chase is high-octane, and the conflict between Lars and other characters, such as the formidable Merethe Winther-Sørenson, is very satisfying. I love the way that Lars is blocked at every turn by a shadowy political machine determined to keep its party safe from scandal, even at the expense of justice. Through this subplot, as well as the flashbacks that reveal more of Mogens’ background and Merethe’s treatment of her granddaughter, Sarah, Melander makes some keen commentary on the nature of political dynasties, and how they affect both the countries they rule and the people who grow up within them.
So The Scream of the Butterfly is a competent and compelling murder mystery wrapped inside a political thriller. It features a transgender character prominently and in a positive way. And while I didn’t much enjoy the reveals behind the guilty parties, the political aspects of the story, combined with the way Lars confronts them, were enough to keep me hooked. I might not remember this novel years down the road, but it’s a satisfying read for a day or two.