"Death of a Nightingale is a gripping and elegant tapestry of a novel. A seamless weaving of psychological depth and rocket-paced plotting, the story hooked me in and the strong, complicated, and fascinating women at its center kept me utterly riveted cover-to-cover. Nina Borg is one of my new favorite heroines!"
— Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of In the Blood
I am very proud to offer you a glimpse into Soho Crime’s lead title for this fall, Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (November 5, 2013).
This Danish literary thriller follows on the heels of New York Times bestseller and Notable Book The Boy in the Suitcase and Invisible Murder ..."
DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE: an excerpt
AUDIO FILE #83: Nightingale
“Go on,” says a man’s voice.
“I’m tired,” an older woman answers, clearly uncomfortable and dismissive.
“But it’s so exciting.”
“Exciting?” There’s a lash of bitterness in her reaction. “A bit of Saturday entertainment? Is that what this is for you?”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that.”
They are both speaking Ukrainian, he quickly and informally, she more hesitantly. In the background, occasional beeps from an electronic game can be heard.
“It’s important for posterity.”
The old woman laughs now, a hard and unhappy laughter. “Posterity,” she says. “Do you mean the child? Isn’t she better off not knowing?”
“If that’s how you see it. We should be getting home anyway.” “No.” The word is abrupt. “Not yet. Surely you can stay a little longer.”
“You said you were tired,” says the man. “No. Not . . . that tired.”
“I don’t mean to press you.”
“No, I know that. You just thought it was exciting.”
“Forget I said that. It was stupid.”
“No, no. Children like exciting stories. Fairy tales.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of something real. Something you experienced yourself.”
Another short pause. Then, “No, let me tell you a story,” the old woman says suddenly. “A fairy tale. A little fairy tale from Stalin Land. A suitable bedtime story for the little one. Are you listening, my sweet?”
Beep, beep, beep-beep. Unclear mumbling from the child. Obviously, her attention is mostly on the game, but that doesn’t stop the old woman.
“Once upon a time, there were two sisters,” she begins clearly, as if reciting. “Two sisters who both sang so beautifully that the nightingale had to stop singing when it heard them. First one sister sang for the emperor himself, and thus was the undoing of a great many people. Then the other sister, in her resentment, began to sing too.” “Who are you talking about?” the man asks. “Is it you? Is it someone we know?”
The old woman ignores him. There’s a harshness to her voice, as if she’s using the story to punish him.
“When the emperor heard the other sister, his heart grew inflamed, and he had to own her,” she continued. “‘Come to me,’ he begged. Oh, you can be sure he begged. ‘Come to me, and be my nightingale. I’ll give you gold and beautiful clothes and servants at your beck and call.’” Here the old woman stops. It’s as if she doesn’t really feel like going on, and the man no longer pressures her. But the story has its own relentless logic, and she has to finish it.
“At first she refused. She rejected the emperor. But he persisted. ‘What should I give you, then?’ he asked, because he had learned that everything has a price. ‘I will not come to you,’ said the other sister, ‘before you give me my evil sister’s head on a platter.’”
In the background, the beeping sounds from the child’s game have ceased. Now there is only an attentive silence.
“When the emperor saw that a heart as black as sin hid behind the beautiful song,” the old woman continues, still using her fairy-tale voice, “he not only killed the first sister, but also the nightingale’s father and mother and grandfather and grandmother and whole family. ‘That’s what you get for your jealousy,’ he said and threw the other sister out.”
The child utters a sound, a frightened squeak. The old woman doesn’t seem to notice.
“Tell me,” she whispers. “Which of them is me?”
“You’re both alive,” says the man. “So something in the story must be a lie.”
“In Stalin Land, Stalin decides what is true and what is a lie,” says the old woman. “And I said that it was a Stalin fairy tale.”
“Daddy,” says the child, “I want to go home now.”
Natasha started; she had been sitting silently, looking out the window of the patrol car as Copenhagen glided by in frozen shades of winter grey. Dirty house fronts, dirty snow and a low and dirty sky in which the sun had barely managed to rise above the roof-tops in the course of the day. The car’s tires hissed in the soap-like mixture of snow, ice and salt that covered the asphalt. None of it had anything to do with her, and she noted it all without really seeing it.
“You do speak Danish, don’t you?”
The policeman in the passenger seat had turned toward her and offered her a little blue-white pack. She nodded and took a piece. Said thank you. He smiled at her and turned back into his seat.
This wasn’t the “bus,” as they called it—the usual transport from Vestre Prison to the court—that Natasha had been on before. It was an ordinary black-and-white; the police were ordinary Danish policemen. The youngest one, the one who had given her the gum, was thirty at the most. The other was old and fat and seemed nice enough too. Danish policemen had kind eyes. Even that time with Michael and the knife, they had spoken calmly and kindly to her as if she hadn’t been a criminal they were arresting but rather a patient going to the hospital.
One day, before too long, two of these kind men would put Katerina and her on a flight back to Ukraine, but that was not what was happening today. Not yet. It couldn’t be. Her asylum case had not yet been decided, and Katerina was not with her. Besides, you didn’t need to go through Copenhagen to get to the airport, that much she knew. This was the way to Central Police Headquarters.
Natasha placed her hands on her light blue jeans, rubbed them hard back and forth across the rough fabric, opened and closed them quickly. Finally, she made an effort to let her fists rest on her knees while she looked out at Copenhagen and tried to figure out if the trip into the city brought her closer to or farther from Katerina. During the last months, the walls and the physical distance that separated them had become an obsession. She was closer to her daughter when she ate in the cafeteria than when she was in her cell. The trip to the yard was also several meters in the wrong direction, but it still felt soothing because it was as if she were breathing the same air as Katerina. On the library computer Natasha had found Google Street View and dragged the flat little man to the parking lot in front of the prison, farther along Copenhagen’s streets and up the entrance ramp to the highway leading through the woods that sprawled north of the city’s outer reaches. It was as if she could walk next to him the whole way and see houses and storefronts and trees and cars, but when he reached the Coal-House Camp, he couldn’t go any farther. Here she had to make do with the grubby satellite image of the camp’s flat bar-rack roofs. She had stared at the pictures until she went nearly insane. She had imagined that one of the tiny dots was Katerina. Had dreamed of getting closer. From the prison, it was twenty-three kilometers to the Coal-House Camp. From the center of Copenhagen it was probably a few kilometers more, but on the other hand, there were neither walls nor barbed wire between the camp and her right now. There was only the thin steel shell of the police car, air and wind, kilometers of asphalt. And later, the fields and the wet forest floor.
She knew it wouldn’t do any good, but she reached out to touch the young policeman’s shoulder all the same. “You still don’t know anything?” she asked in English.
His eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. His gaze was apologetic but basically indifferent. He shook his head. “We’re just the chauffeurs,” he said. “We aren’t usually told stuff like that.”
She leaned back in her seat and again began to rub her palms against her jeans. Opened and closed her hands. Neither of the two policemen knew why she was going to police headquarters. They had nothing for her except chewing gum.
The court case over the thing with Michael was long finished, so that probably wasn’t what it was about, and her plea for asylum had never required interviews or interrogations anywhere but the Coal-House Camp.
Fear made her stomach contract, and she felt the urge to shit and pee at the same time. If only she could have had Katerina with her. If only they could have been together. At night in the prison, she had the most terrible nightmares about Katerina alone in the children’s barrack, surrounded by flames.
Or Katerina making her way alone into the swamp behind the camp.
It was unnatural for a mother not to be able to reach out and touch her child. Natasha knew she was behaving exactly like cows after their calves were taken from them in the fall, when they stood, their shrill bellowing lasting for hours, without knowing which way to direct their sorrow. She had tried to relieve her restlessness with cold logic. They were not separated forever, she told herself.
Katerina came to visit once in a while with Nina, the lady from the Coal-House Camp, who reassured Natasha every time that she would personally take care of Katerina. Rina, the Danes called her. They thought that was her name because that was what the papers said. But Rina wasn’t even a name. It was what was left when an overpaid little forger in Lublin had done what he could to disguise the original text.
Maybe that was why she was here? Had they discovered what the man in Lublin had done?
Her dread of the future rose like the tide. Her jaw muscles tightened painfully, and when she crushed the compact piece of gum between her teeth, everything in her mouth felt sticky and metallic.
The policeman at the wheel slowed down, gave a low, triumphant whistle and slid the car in between two other cars in a perfect parking maneuver. Through the front window, Natasha could see the grey, fortress-like headquarters of the Danish police. Why were there thick bars in front of some of the windows? As far as she knew, it wasn’t here by the entrance that they locked up thieves and murderers. It seemed as if the bars were just there as a signal—a warning about what awaited when the interrogations with the nice Danish policemen were over.
The fat cop opened the door for her. “This is as far as we go, young lady.”
She climbed out of the car and buried her hands in the pockets of her down jacket. The cold hit her, biting at her nose and cheeks, and she realized that she had brought neither hat nor gloves. When you were in prison, the weather wasn’t something that really mattered. She had barely registered the snow the day before.
The older policeman pulled a smoke out of his uniform jacket and lit it, gave an expectant cough. The young cop, who already had a hand on Natasha’s arm, sighed impatiently.
“Just two minutes,” said the heavyset one and leaned against the car. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
The young one shrugged. “You really should stop that, pal. It’s going to kill both you and me. I’m freezing my ass off here.”
The old one laughed good-naturedly and drew smoke deep into his lungs. Natasha wasn’t freezing, but her legs felt weak, and she noticed again that she needed to pee. Soon. But she didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want the policemen to rush. She looked up at the massive, squat building as if it could tell her why she was here. Relaxed uniformed and non-uniformed employees wandered in and out among the pillars in the wide entrance area. If they were planning to seal the fate of a young Ukrainian woman today, you couldn’t tell, and for a moment, Natasha felt calmer.
This was Copenhagen, not Kiev.
Both she and Katerina were safe. She was still in Copenhagen. Still Copenhagen. Across the rooftops a bit farther away, she could see the frozen and silent amusement rides in Tivoli, closed for the season. The tower ride from which she and Michael and Katerina had let themselves fall, secure in their little seats, on a warm summer night almost two years ago.
The big guy stubbed out his cigarette against a stone island in the parking lot and nodded at Natasha. “Well, shall we?”
She began to move but then remained standing as if frozen in place. The sounds of the city reached her with a sudden violence. The rising and falling song of car motors and tires on the road, the weak vibration in the asphalt under her when a truck rumbled by, the voices and slamming car doors. She was searching for something definite in the babble. She focused her consciousness to its utmost and found it. Again.
“Ni. Sohodni. Rozumiyete?”
Natasha locked her gaze on two men who had parked their car some distance away—one of them wearing an impeccable black suit and overcoat, the other more casual in dark jeans and a light brown suede jacket.
“Did someone nail your feet to the pavement?” the young cop said, in a friendly enough fashion. “Let’s keep moving.” His hand pressed harder around her elbow, pushing her forward a little.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She took one more step and another. Looked down at the slushy black asphalt and felt the fear rise in her in its purest and darkest form.
They worked their way sideways around a small row of dug-up parking spaces cordoned off with red-and-white construction tape. Long orange plastic tubes snaked their way up from the bottom of the deserted pit. Next to it was a small, neat pile of cobbles half covered by snow.
Natasha slowed down. Gently. Avoided any sudden movements.
The old guy looked back just as she bent down to pick up the top cobble. She smiled at him. Or tried to, at least.
“I’m just . . .”
He was two steps away, but the younger one was closer, and she hit him, hard and fast and without thinking. She felt the impact shoot up through the stone and into her hand and closed her eyes for an instant. She knew that the young cop fell in front of the old one, blocking his way, because she could hear them both curse and scrabble in the soap-like slush. But she didn’t see it.
She just ran.
The Nina Borg Series
About the Authors
It wasn´t exactly love at first sight when Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis met, but it was pretty damn close.
It was the year 2007 and Lene was at that time already a widely published bestselling author of children’s books, while Agnete was still making a living as a journalist, writing only in what was left of her spare time as a mother of two young children, with her third child on the way.
The meeting was quite coincidental, in the way important meetings often are. Agnete was looking for a publisher for her second children’s book, and Lene was looking for young talented writers for the small publishing house she was part-proprietor of at the time.
They met and had coffee. Or rather, they met and had coffee and tea. As with a lot of other issues, Lene and Agnete do not agree on choice of beverage. But they did agree to meet again, this time to kick-start the children’s book together. Lene would be the coach and Agnete the talent. A couple of weeks later, Agnete rode her bike through the city of Copenhagen to meet up with Lene in her private home on the Copenhagen waterfront.
And that was when they fell in love—professionally, that is. In spite of their countless differences, they had one very important thing in common. They thought about writing in the exact same way, and they enjoyed talking about it.
In 2008, shortly after Agnete’s book was published, Lene was first haunted by the image of a small naked boy in a suitcase. She knew that this was in no way something that belonged in one of her usual books for children. But the picture distracted her in her work and would not go away, so she finally came to the conclusion that she would have to do something about it—if possible with Agnete as copilot on her mission.
“She called me and read me the first page of The Boy in the Suitcase,” Agnete says. “And I wanted so badly to say yes right away, but at that point my third child was only one month old, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I could live up to the challenge. But after thinking hard about it for a couple of days, I finally said yes, and it was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Not just because of the books we write together, but because having a writing partner and friend like that is absolutely wonderful.”
“Finding someone you can work with in that very intimate fashion is a rare gift,” says Lene. “I’m really, really glad I had the sense to recognize it at the time. It’s been extremely rewarding to have someone there every bit of the way, laughing, sparring, critiquing, gossiping, killing darlings, and inventing people, places and stories that I could not have come up with on my own in a million years.” Tongue in cheek, she adds: “Getting a ring-side seat to Agnete’s busy and often highly entertaining family life is, of course, an added bonus.”
Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis
The two authors have worked closely together since 2008, having published a total of three books, with a fourth coming out in 2013.
Lene Kaaberbøl, 52, has an M.A. in English and Drama. A former high school teacher, she is now a fulltime writer, with a total of 40 books under her belt, most of them published all over the world. She started writing very early and had her first two novels published when she was only 15 years old. After living in Copenhagen for several years, she has moved to the countryside with her three dogs, a laptop and very poor telephone reception, which makes her a very productive writer.
Things to know about Lene:
—She absolutely hates coffee but loves tea
—She likes to work in the morning
—She is a self-declared perfectionist and control freak when it comes to her books, but not her garden.
—She likes living far away from anything that can distract her from what she feels is her most important task in life: to write
Agnete Friis, 38, is a journalist and now fulltime writer. Beside crime fiction she has written children’s books and biographies. She grew up in the countryside, but now lives in Copenhagen with her husband and three children. Although she enjoyed being a journalist, she enjoys being a fiction writer even more, because she sometimes finds it easier to write a true story when it’s not really true.
Things to know about Agnete:
—She only drinks coffee when she is working
—She works whenever her children are not around, whatever time of day it is
—She is very far from being a perfectionist, although not as bad a slob as Lene might suggest
—She loves Copenhagen and will never leave the city again
Nina Borg Series
Q & A between editor Juliet Grames and Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
Juliet: One of the main characters in Death of a Nightingale is a Ukrainian woman named Natasha. We meet her in a prison convoy: she has been convicted of the attempted murder of her ex-fiancé and thrown into Danish prison. How did you dream up Natasha’s character and storyline?
Danish Prision c. 1935
Lene & Agnete: Natasha has been part of the Nina Borg storyline ever since The Boy in the Suitcase. At first she was just a young woman so terrified of being deported that she would put up with just about anything—including an abusive fiancé—to be allowed to stay in Denmark. It was only gradually that we began to wonder why she was so terrified. She developed from being a peripheral character, mainly defined by her role as a victim, into something much more complex. Had she been from Poland or Slovakia or pretty much any other East European nation, her deportation would have been immediate and automatic, since the Danish authorities regard those countries as “safe”—that is, territories where rejected asylum-seekers will not be met with persecution. This would not suit our purposes; we needed her to stay around for three whole novels, so she had to be from Ukraine, one of the very few former East-bloc countries still considered so questionable from a human rights point of view that deportation cannot be automatic. As a matter of fact, you could say that not only Natasha’s nationality but most of the plot of Death of a Nightingale was decided by Danish foreign policy…
Juliet: Part of the book is set in the 1930s in a Ukrainian village that has been damaged by a recent famine. How did you decide on this plotline and setting? How did you research it and make it feel so realistic?
Lene & Agnete: The Holomodor—the great famine caused by Stalin’s drive to force Ukraine’s farmers into collectivization—came up when we started researching the history of Ukraine. We were both amazed that a disaster of that magnitude could have escaped our notice; numbers are uncertain and fiercely debated, but several million people lost their lives, and yet we had never heard of it. We decided to dig a little deeper and were lucky enough to find quite a few first-hand accounts. But books and pictures can take you only so far. Luckily, Ukraine has an excellent open-air museum at Pirohiv, not too far from Kiev, where we could walk among houses like the ones that would have made up Olga’s village, and visit a school room like the one in which she and her sister Oxana would have been taught.
Ukranian farmers forced into collectivization by the Stalinist regime
Juliet: At the core of the plot of Death of a Nightingale is a secret from the distant past—seventy years ago—that is still having an effect on contemporary Ukrainian politics. Was this motif a fictional invention for the book? Or in your research did you encounter real incidents where Soviet-era scandals are still treated this seriously?
Lene & Agnete: Oh, the past is very far from dead in Ukraine. In current affairs, it matters what you grandmother did and whose side your father was on. In the 2004 presidential campaign, the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovytch ralled the Nationalist candidate Viktor Yushchenko “a Nazi,” and Yushchenko’s wartime pedigree came into play—how his father had been imprisoned at Auschwitz as a Red Army Soldier, how his mother had hidden some Jewish girls at great risk to herself. Then, when Yushchenko became president, he made Holodomor-denial a criminal offense. However, Yanukovytch was eventually re-elected and went on record saying that the Holodomor could not be called genocide but was “a common tragedy of the Sovjet people.” Yushchenko made Ukrainian nationalist and anti-sovjet army leader Stepan Bandera a posthumous “Hero of Ukraine”—Yanukovytch annulled that honor. Soccer fans from Lviv in Western Ukraine regularly fly a huge banner with Bandera’s face on it, particularly provocative when they are playing a team from the more pro-Russian areas in the east. Ukraine is far from ready to let Stalin era events be relegated to the cold case files.
Juliet: How did you collaborate on the actual writing of this book? Did one of you write certain characters’ points of views? Or did you share them all?
Lene & Agnete: The collaboration mostly works because of intense preparations. Before we really start writing, we have mapped out the story and the plot, scene by scene, so that we can basically dip into it at any point—Agnete may be busy writing Chapter Six, while Lene is deep into Chapter Sixteen, it doesn’t really matter. We gossip about the characters as if they were real people, we share pictures, research files, quotations—and, of course, impressions from the research trips. All so that we can work from a common base. We’ve sworn a bloody oath never to reveal exactly who wrote what . . . and actually, we both make it a point to write a bit in the voice of even those point-of-view characters for which we are not primarily responsible—it helps you understand them better, and it means that we are better equipped to critique and edit each other’s work.
Juliet: In Death of a Nightingale, we finally learn more about a dark secret from Nina Borg’s past—one that has been alluded to in previous books but never spelled out. Can we hope to learn more about this chilling episode in a future Nina Borg book?
Lene & Agnete: Actually, in the fourth novel—we’ve just finished the draft—calamity in the shape of an attempted murder finds Nina in the town where she grew up. She is supposed to be helping her mother through a time of serious illness, but ends up being in dire need of help herself. And yes, the ghosts of the past do close in . . .