Cover image of "The Harbor," a Nordic crime novel that's not about a serial  killer

Are you bored, as I am, with all those Scandinavian thrillers about serial killers? A fact check reveals the problem. In Denmark, for example, records show a grand total of five serial killers. Ever. For Sweden, the number is four, Norway, three, and Iceland, one—in the 16th century. (By comparison, the US Department of Justice details 750 individual serial killers in the United States in the 20th century alone.) So, it’s refreshing to come across a Nordic crime novel that’s not about a serial killer. Danish actress and author Katrine Engberg ably fills the bill with The Harbor, the third book in her popular Kørner and Werner detective series.

An odd couple of detectives

Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner are something of an odd couple. The two detectives in Copenhagen’s Police Investigations Unit have worked together for years but never quite gelled as a pair. They get on each other’s nerves. And they often pursue leads individually, without explanation to the other. But both are more than competent, and somehow they and their team manage to muddle through the often protracted and challenging cases that come their way. And the case they confront in The Harbor is complex, indeed. Because the cast of characters involved is large, and the investigation involves not just murder but two other serious crimes as well.

The Harbor (Kørner and Werner #3) by Katrine Engberg (2022) 352 pages ★★★★☆

Aerial photo of Copenhagen's harbor, scene of much of the action in this Nordic crime novel
Copenhagen harbor. Image: Troels Heien/Copenhagen Media Center via Afar Magazine

A missing fifteen-year-old boy

Oscar Dreyer-Hoff has gone missing. The fifteen-year-old is the son of a local couple prominent enough to call the Police Commissioner on a Saturday, and she in turn calls in Kørner and Werner. But it soon becomes clear that there are no clues to the young man’s disappearance. What turns up right away, however, is that his parents are well known to the police and the media. They own a major art auction house that years earlier was mired in scandal. Police were unable to uncover evidence of wrongdoing, but the taint of scandal remains. And the family has been receiving threatening letters. The connection to their son’s disappearance seems obvious.

Then a body turns up in the teeth of a crane on its way to the incinerator at Copenhagen’s high-tech new trash processing center. Only a close forensic examination can tell that the body isn’t Oscar’s. But when at length the autopsy is complete, Kørner and Werner learn that the corpse is that of the young man who was Oscar’s Danish teacher. He’s nude and wears makeup. And the story takes another sharp turn when Oscar’s backpack is discovered on the shore of the harbor. Did Oscar kill his teacher and flee?

An inventive Nordic crime novel

The story unfolds over the space of seven days. The two detectives and their team probe deeply into the Dreyer-Hoff family’s finances all the while there is drama playing out in their own lives. Kørner is in a relationship with a younger woman on the investigative team and is having a challenging time with her hostile eleven-year-old daughter. And Werner’s twenty-five-year marriage is beginning to seem rocky. She feels herself falling for the man who found Oscar’s backpack—who is a murder suspect. Meanwhile, the complications mount. Other characters emerge with connections to Oscar’s disappearance and the murder of his teacher. It’s a supremely challenging case for the team.

Engberg’s plotting is masterful, and she has done a thorough job of research into the technical aspects of the case. High-tech, low-carbon waste incineration, taxidermy, and tribal death rituals and bereavement practices all enter into the story. It’s hard to put down because it all fits together so nicely, with surprises all along the way.

About the author

Photo of Katrine Engberg, author of this Nordic crime novel

Katrine Engberg (1975-) is a former actress, dancer, and choreographer who has turned to writing. She has become one of Denmark’s most widely read crime novelists. The Harbor is the third in her series featuring detectives Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner. Engberg lives in Copenhagen with her family.

For more reading

I’ve read many crime thrillers set in Denmark, especially the bestselling Department Q series from Jussi-Adler Olsen and the Nina Borg novels of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, beginning with The Boy in the Suitcase. They’re all excellent.

Be sure to check out The best Nordic noir series and Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery by Wendy Lesser (Down the rabbit hole of Nordic noir).

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