January 05, 2021

Katrine Engberg

Nordic noir with a bloody twist

We talked with author Katrine Engberg about her inspirations and motivations, and how she changed careers from a dancer and choreographer to a creator of the darkest of murder mysteries.

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Caritas Fountain is Copenhagen’s oldest fountain, a popular gathering spot for residents and tourists alike. Alas, it is also where Bettina Holte is found murdered: floating, nude, drained of blood, a series of cuts serving as strange and grisly cues. In the next two days, two more bodies are found—also in water, also exsanguinated.

Detective Jeppe Korner and his colleagues (plus Detective Anette Werner, on maternity leave but doing casework on the sly) must find the killer before they can strike again. They work through a large number of plausible suspects connected to a psychiatric facility for teens called The Butterfly House, unearthing terrible secrets and raising more questions along the way. We talked with author Katrine Engberg about her inspirations and motivations, and how she changed careers from a dancer and choreographer to a creator of the darkest of murder mysteries.

Your novels are bestsellers in your native Denmark and are now being published in the U.S. (and many other countries). Congratulations! What has it been like to work with the various new editors and publishers and translators of your books?
To be anything but grateful in my situation would be downright ludicrous. I am blessed to be working with some of the world's finest publishing houses and very best editors. It feels like having an extended work family all over the world, which makes writing a lot less lonely. That said, there is always some insecurity involved with being translated. Essentially, you hand over control of your most personal voice to a stranger, who then interprets your words in their own language. It is bizarre but also a huge privilege—and great fun!

"I never get tired of trying to understand humankind."

Readers first met Jeppe Korner and Anette Werner in your first novel, The Tenant. In The Butterfly House, you separate them and dive more deeply into their individual personal lives, from Jeppe’s recent divorce to Anette’s frustrations with maternity leave. Will you talk a bit about why it was important for you to reveal their inner thoughts and struggles in this way?
To me the key to any good reading experience lies in connecting with the characters. One has to get to know them and care for them, even in crime fiction. Well, especially in crime fiction. The more twisted and far out a criminal plot is, the more I have to believe in the characters and trust them. I find that a major part of the suspense in any book lies in the interaction between and growth of the protagonists, even if the main goal of the story is to find a killer on the loose. People—and all the different ways we tackle divorce and maternity leave and life in general—are essentially interesting. I never get tired of trying to understand humankind.

Your home city of Copenhagen, Denmark, plays a major role in The Butterfly House. Bodies are found in its waters; suspects represent various subcultures; characters move about both above and underground. Was incorporating the city into your books an “of course” for you?
It was more than an "of course"; it was the inspiration for the whole series and a motor for every story. Readers often name Copenhagen as one of my protagonists, and they are right in doing so. I love my city. Being medieval, Copenhagen is not only atmospheric and beautiful but also has layers and layers of history that speak to you as you wander its streets. Secret corners, subcultures, weirdness—Copenhagen has everything. And it's all sitting right next to the loveliness of Tivoli Gardens and the Queen's Castle. I've always been a fan of how Ian Rankin’s books revolve around, and salute, Edinburgh. I hope I can do the same for Copenhagen.

Before becoming an author, you worked as a dancer and choreographer. Did changing careers feel strange to you, perhaps like a culture shock of sorts, or was it a natural transition? How does dance inform and affect your writerly work?
The transition was slow and felt very natural to me. I used to tell stories with actors on a stage, and now I tell stories with words on a page, but to me the process is very similar. I have always written; it is my most fundamental form of expression. I just never used to show my texts to anyone. And I still work just as intuitively as before. I don't plan ahead much, and I don't control my characters and their actions too sternly; each scene has to progress organically and each sentence has to form naturally . . . like music.

Many of the characters in this mystery work in health care with, shall we say, mixed results. A character muses, “Sometimes working in health care felt like renovating a fixer-upper with modeling clay.” What about this often-Sisyphean pursuit appealed to you as a subject?
All authors are drawn to conflict, and unsolvable problems have their specific appeal. The health care industry is a forever intriguing mixture of good intentions, business decisions, flawed legislation and patients and health care workers with all of their individual needs. Denmark prides itself in having some of the best health care in the world. Even so, many patients—especially psychiatric patients—suffer from inadequate care and the shortcomings of the system. I wanted to shine a light on this hypocrisy.

Your characters also raise important questions about how society views mental illness and those who experience it. One points out that “sick” and “healthy” are loaded and ambiguous terms: “You could argue that any deviation from societal normal is pathological. You could also argue the opposite.” What do you hope readers will take from The Butterfly House about this subject?
We tend to keep mental illness at arm’s length because it frightens us so. But, in reality, we all carry the potential for mental illness, and most of us will experience some form of it firsthand at some point in our lives. Anxiety, postpartum depression, stress—living is a tough business, and it doesn't take much of a push to tip the scale and plummet to the bottom. We need to revise our perception of "sick" and "healthy" and, to a greater extent, embrace walking the fine line over the abyss that is the human mind.

Bodily mutilation plays a role in your first novel, The Tenant, wherein a woman had a pattern carved into her face. In The Butterfly House, the victims have mysterious groupings of cuts on their bodies. Is the psychology of bodily mutilation (or modification) especially intriguing to you?
I wish I could say no, because having a morbid fascination is not the most sympathetic trait I can think of. But I do. I would argue that all crime aficionados share this quirk (and, really, maybe all of us in general, come to think of it). We go through life knowing that death is certain but without having any idea what that means. This fear of the unknown becomes a fascination. Poking the fear makes us feel more alive, ironic as it may seem. In a way, reading crime fiction is like riding a roller coaster: comfortingly frightening. On top of that, I have an affinity for ancient medical equipment, and in The Butterfly House I have combined the two—turning an old device meant to heal and soothe into a murder weapon.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Butterfly House.

Being honest and straightforward, however scary or painful it may be, plays an important part in your characters’ relationships. Whether between Jeppe and his mother or Anette and her husband, making the effort to express, rather than bury, feelings can offer hope and reassurance. What made you choose to highlight that aspect of close personal connections, both filial and romantic?
How people interact with each other (and the psychology that lies behind every action) is what interests me the most, in life as well as when I write. This is true not just for my protagonists but for ALL my characters, including the antagonists and secondary characters. WHY do we do what we do? WHY are we so complex and unpredictable when our wants or needs are fundamentally the same? WHY do some people become violent? People interest me, and I would never read a book if I were not drawn to the characters and their inner lives, even if the plot was original and well crafted. I hope that readers will connect with my characters and maybe even identify with their thoughts and struggles.

The notion of the butterfly effect is fascinating to think about. Will you share what it means to you and how it inspired you as you created The Butterfly House?
The notion of evil people—that a person can be born bad—has always seemed strange to me. We all have the potential for good and bad deeds; what determines the balance between the two can be the smallest things. A misunderstanding between friends, a missed text message, a bus that didn't leave on time—small, innocent things can, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, lead to disaster. That is the butterfly effect: The flap of a butterfly wing on one side of the earth can cause a flood on the other. There is a certain degree of surrender in accepting the butterfly effect, an acceptance of how very small we are and how little control we have over life and death. I like that surrender to circumstance, to life, even to fate itself.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers about The Butterfly House, and what’s up next for Jeppe and Anette (and you!)?
Just that I hope readers will embrace this second book in the series with the same warmth that they gave The Tenant. I am extremely thankful for the fantastic reception the series has had in the U.S. and Canada.


Author photo by Les Kaner.

Get the Book

The Butterfly House

The Butterfly House

By Katrine Engberg
ISBN 9781982127602

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