Review of “Only One Life” by Sara Blaedel

Denmark has been in the news fairly often lately for conflicts between ethnic Danes and the immigrant Muslim population. This police procedural puts this cultural tension in sharp relief, providing an engaging way to glean insights into the “clash of civilizations” now occurring in the West and particularly in Europe.

Louise Rick, a 37-year-old Inspector with the Copenhagen homicide investigation unit, receives a temporary reassignment to the elite Mobile Task Force. A young Muslim girl has been murdered near Holbaek, an hour or so from Copenhagen. An “honor killing” is suspected.

[Honor killings occur in some cultures in which a family member has done something perceived to bring shame and dishonor upon the entire extended family. The “objectionable” behavior can include, among other things, any perceived sexual misconduct including getting raped; associating with others outside the community and adopting their values; or even disobedience. This can cause the whole family to become outcasts if the behavior is not “avenged.” Some women in these tightly-knit cultures prefer that the honor killings take place rather than having to endure the loneliness and humiliation of exclusion. And many of the women, having never been exposed to different systems of thought, cannot transcend the socialization that encourages them to believe the abuse or murder is justified.

As the author indicates in an excerpt from a U.N. report of March 2010, “The United Nations Population Fund estimates that perhaps as many as five thousand women and girls a year are killed by members of their own families. Many women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect the number of victims is about four times greater.”]

Louise’s best friend Camilla is a reporter, and tries to diffuse the smoldering anti-immigrant mood surrounding the murder story by writing about non-immigrant groups using shame to control their members, especially females. She also reports on the number of girls in these groups who take their own lives as a response to the ostracism and humiliation inflicted upon them.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the investigation, there is a budding romance between two of the characters, and here Blaedel is exceptional at capturing the emotions that accompany new relationships, as in this example:

“‘Let’s stop here,’ she said, releasing her firm hold on him, but nonetheless willingly allowing herself to be pushed along as he guided her backward, both hands on her hips, away from the Irish coffee toward the house. As they walked slowly so she wouldn’t stumble, her eyes bore into his to determine how big a catastrophe this was. What did he think of her? Had she pressured him into this? Did he feel like he couldn’t turn her down? How crushing a failure would it be when he said this was all a mistake? That they should have stopped before they even started. … “

In fact, the author’s dialogue is very good when any emotional scene is involved. The scene in which Louise brought bad news to the parents of a second girl killed had me in tears.

Discussion: This turned out to be quite an enjoyable book, but it had to grow on me. Two things took me a while to get used to: (1) It has a largish cast of characters having both Danish and Jordanian names (this adjustment difficulty obviously being my problem rather than the author’s); and (2) It has a somewhat stilted narrative style, which I think could well be a function of translation. At the same time, the parts with dialogue have a much better flow. Certainly it is true that each culture and its language may have a wholly different syntax. Moreover, the arrangement of linguistic elements may be one way for dialogue and another for narration. The fact that the properties of the language may seem alien to us is not necessarily a reflection upon the skill of an author or translator.

At any rate, once I got accustomed to these constituents of the story, it became very engaging.

Evaluation: This book provides the usual suspense, humor, and romantic interludes that characterize squads of dedicated police professionals (at least in fiction!). The thought-provoking look at the tensions between two different cultures and the spotlight on gender politics adds a great deal of interest to the story. I definitely want to read more books by this author.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Pegasus Crime, an imprint of Pegasus Books, LLC, 2012


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14 Responses to Review of “Only One Life” by Sara Blaedel

  1. Alpa says:

    the whole set up in copenhagen sounds interesting. Will definitely read this book. 🙂

  2. I am reading a book set in Iceland at the moment, so I certainly understand the difficult name problem…

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m glad to see this is good! I met the author when I was in New York and it was obvious she’s passionate about her work.

  4. Trish says:

    I always wonder with translated books how the writing compares to the original. Since I can only read English I guess I would never know the difference. But I struggled with the language/writing of Dragon Girl Tattoo and wondered how much of it was translation.

  5. Barbara says:

    This issue of honor killings has been around since time immemorial but I’m glad to see the world finally becoming more aware of it. Maybe this novel can help spread the belief that it must be stamped out.

  6. Interesting! I like what you say about dialogue/narrative style.

    Have you read M.L. Longworth? There’s something about her books that irritates me dialoguelistically (heehee) that I can’t quite put my finger on. I’d think it was poor translation, but I’m pretty sure her books are originally written in English.

    But frustrating when I like the narrative style, but the way the characters talk is so grating.

  7. Very intrigued by what you said about gender politics and cultural tensions!

  8. sandynawrot says:

    I never thought about it until a couple of years ago, but translation really is an art form, and just as important as the original words I think. Sometimes it is gorgeous and other times it just goes very wrong. I am interested in this because I like mysteries set in different countries but it is so hard for me to find the time, I really look for ones that have a very distinctive style or character. Otherwise I find them fairly forgettable!

  9. bookingmama says:

    I had a similar reaction but overall, I thought this was a good book. It was interesting to have the chance to ask the author about the reaction to her novel!

  10. Welllll Denmark intrigues me! :’)

  11. Stephanie says:

    This sounds right up my alley. I enjoy police procedural mysteries,and I am thoroughly intrigued by what you said about cultural tensions and gender politics.

  12. Jenners says:

    Urgh. Not sure if this is for me.

  13. zibilee says:

    I find the implications and topic of this book fascinating. Ever since reading a nonfiction book about the differences between men and women in cultures like this a few years ago, I have been really eager to find more stories that focus on this topic. It sounds as if there is a lot here to recommend it, and I do also agree with Sandy that translation can be like an art form. If it’s translated just right, some books can make an extreme impact.

  14. I would like to read about this situation so this one sounds interesting to me.

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