The Ice Coven: Nordic Noir

            When we last saw Helsinki police officer Jessica Niemi, she had solved a heinous spate of murders and escaped—or so it seemed—the clutches of a coven of witches.

            But alas, life isn’t always so easily wrapped up in a happy ever after ending and poor Jessica has to deal with those darn witches again in The Ice Coven, the second novel published in English by Finnish author Max Seeck. His first, Witch Hunters, made the New York Times Bestseller list.

            It’s only been six months since Jessica and the Helsinki police were able to breathe a sigh of relief and deal just with everyday crime. But now as they hunt for two popular social media influencers who have disappeared, it slowly becomes apparent that there’s again a supernatural force at work against them. Seeck has the ability to interweave complicated plots and tie them all neatly together at the end. In The Ice Coven, the police are facing a case with a wide range of weird stuff that includes human trafficking, frog toxin, bizarre murders, and somnophilia—an odd sexual obsession of those who like to watch people sleep.

            Interestingly, Seeck’s interest in writing Nordic Noir stems from the mid-1990s when he watched Agatha Christie movies with his grandmother including those featuring her famed detective Hercule Poirot. It seems like a large leap between those gentile English mysteries and a series of violent killings and witchcraft. But Seeck views it all—both Christie and his own stories—as similar.

            “It was magical—the mystery, the tension, and finally the solution to the case,” is how he describes those days of binging on Agatha Christie. And indeed, there’s lots of tension as we worry about what will happen next. Even Seeck is on edge as he writes.

            “I like a blurry, icy scene, a setting where eerie figures are looking at you,” he says as we chat on Skype—he in Helsinki and me in the Midwest. “The fictional characters are afraid. So am I. And so, I hope is the reader.”

            I tell him not to worry about the latter. At least this reader was very afraid and yet compelled to keep turning the page.

            Setting his novels (there’s a third Jessica book coming out in 2022) in Helsinki is reflective of Seeck’s ability to “think cinematically.”

            “There are two sides to Helsinki as there are in any city,” he says. “In the summer it is a beautiful and exciting city, full of life and full of people who enjoy life. However, in the winter, it is very dark and cold, making it a terrific location for dark and icy thrillers.”  

Everything We Didn’t Say by Nicole Baart

Nicole Baart, who lives in Iowa and is the mother of five children from four different countries, is the author of several bestselling mysteries. Taking time out from her busy schedule—she’s already working on her next novel–Baart chatted with Jane Ammeson about her latest, Everything We Didn’t Say, which was selected as the Book of the Month October’s Most Popular Pick.

What initially drew you to writing mysteries?

I started out writing contemporary fiction, but I have always loved reading mysteries. In the beginning of my career, I think penning a compelling whodunit simply felt too complicated. Plotting a good mystery is no easy feat—and I feared I wouldn’t be able to skillfully juggle all the important elements (red herrings, believable foreshadowing, a twist or two, authentic motive, etc.). Mystery readers have very high expectations! But I started almost unconsciously weaving puzzles into my books, and by the time Little Broken Things came out in 2017 I had gotten over my hesitation. I love writing novels that center around a good mystery, and I’m thrilled that Everything We Didn’t Say has resonated with so many readers.

Can you give us a brief summary of Everything We Didn’t Say?

It’s the story of Juniper Baker, a special archives librarian in Denver, Colorado who returns to her small, Iowa hometown ostensibly to help an old friend. Really, she’s there to solve a fifteen-year-old double homicide and win back the daughter she left behind.

Was the book inspired by an actual event or events? If not, how did you come up with idea for the book?

I’ve been working on this book for nearly three years and so many different things contributed to the final story! It’s truly a sort of book soup: a bit of this, a little of that. But at the center of it all is a cold case in Iowa that I stumbled across several years ago. My heart went out to the family and friends who are still looking for answers, and that quest for resolution and hope in the midst of such brokenness is littered across the pages of Everything We Didn’t Say

Juniper has such a sense of longing and displacement as well as an ambiguousness about her hometown. Are these feelings you’ve experienced? Do you share characteristics with June?

Absolutely. I love my small town (and the people in it) so very much, but I’m afraid sometimes that we think the line between good and evil runs around the outskirts of town. Us and them narratives are so simple and satisfying, but the truth is much more complicated. Small towns can be places of intimate community and belonging, but they are also filled with secrets, prejudices, and the same turmoil and tragedies that plague, well, everywhere. We aren’t perfect, we aren’t even always good, and I think we need to be honest about that. I want to have conversations about where we might be myopic and insular, and find ways to work through our own short-sightedness. I want to be candid about the ways that we fail, and try to be and do better instead of pretending we’ve got it all together.

Tell us about One Body One Hope and what led you to co-founding the organization.

It’s a long and complicated story, but the simple version is that my husband and I met a Liberian man who became a friend while we were in Ethiopia adopting our second son. That connection led to a deep relationship with a couple in Monrovia, and lasting ties to the children’s home that they opened after the Liberian civil war. We call it the accidental ministry because we never intended for it to happen! What started with one church and 35 orphaned and at-risk kids has grown into three children’s homes that serve over 150 kids (and often their extended families), 27 churches, 6 schools, a micro-finance program with a 92% repayment rate, numerous community redevelopment projects, and a 160-acre commercial farm. Our passion is empowering indigenous leaders and then getting out of their way. Everything good that has happened through One Body One Hope has been because of the Liberian people and their enduring love for their country!

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

I love interacting with readers on my Instagram page @nicolebaart, where I have worked hard to cultivate an uplifting, authentic community. We talk about much more than just books, and I seek to find ways to connect on a personal level as we discuss everything from parenthood to being a good neighbor to things that bring us joy. I’d love to see you there!

Where They Wait: A Scott Carson Supernatural Thriller

          What could be easier than for an out-of-work journalist than an offer of a high paying gig writing a puff piece for an old friend? Well, if you’re the main character in a Scott Carson novel then take it from someone like me who has read every book Michael Koryta has written including those under the Carson pseudonym, things will get much worse before—and if—they get better.

          In time for a stupendously creepy Halloween scare we meet Nick Bishop in Where They Wait (Atria/Bestler, $27) as he arrives in Maine. His assignment is to write about Bryce Lermond for the Hammel College alumni magazine. $5000 is a whole lot of money for a profile of a successful college alum but Bishop, who has reported from Afghanistan, almost turns the job down. He’s proud of his reporter credentials and this job is beneath him. Unfortunately, he’s also broke and besides, a paid trip to Maine gives him a chance to see his mother, a once noted scientist, who now suffers from dementia.

          Oh, if only it were that easy. First entering Lermond’s headquarters, Bishop notes there’s something off kilter about the whole set-up. But he agrees to try Clarity, the app Lermond’s developed that promises to soothe and relax. And indeed, when Bishop first listens to the hauntingly beautiful song, he does fall into a sound sleep. But it’s a rest followed by horrific and seemingly real nightmares. Lermond’s top assistant—and Bishop’s childhood friend—warns him not to listen to Clarity but the melody and the voice of the woman singing is addictive. No, make that irresistible despite she committed suicide and yet shows up frequently and all too real in Bishop’s Clarity-induced dreams.

          Koryta, who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, says that he was struck during the pandemic lockdown at how many relaxation apps were coming to market.

          “I thought this is good but then wondered what if it isn’t good for you,” says Koryta in a call from his home in Maine. “And writing the book during the backdrop of the constant question of how communication is being used to either save democracy or destroy it as well as the power and responsibility of communication soaked into my work. The power of song is really striking to me. Song has a staying power that most things do not, we remember songs and what they say.”

          As the song and the nightmares begin to overtake him, Bishop tries to delete Clarity but it reappears. He also begins to discover secrets about how his mother, who now only seems able to talk in riddles, worked at rewiring his memories. What he remembers about his past never happened.

          “You can peel a lot of things away from a person but as long as they have their own sense of the truth, they’re going to find their way but if you tell them what they know is a lie it changes all that,” says Koryta. “That’s part of the emotional experience I want to impart.”

          Typically, any of Koryta’s books can be read at distinct levels. If you want a great read that moves fast, he delivers. But you can go down to deeper levels, such as his intense research into memory when writing Where They Wait and into how the actions of the characters’ ancestors impact the choices they make now.

          Koryta says the fun part of writing is in the journey of discovering how it will end.

           “When I’m start a book, I don’t know where it’s going,” he says. “You have to personally embrace the unease. I can scare myself when writing and I perversely enjoy that.”

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