In the world of Scandinavian noir, Denmark is ready for its close-up. On Jan. 14, 2020, Simon & Schuster’s Scout Press is publishing The Tenant, the first novel in Katrine Engberg’s crime series featuring police sergeants Jeppe Korner and Anette Werner. The murder is intriguing, the characters edgy, and the city beautiful in all its contradictions.
When the duo is assigned the case of a young woman who was murdered in her apartment and left with an intricate pattern of lines carved into her face, her hard-partying landlady, Esther de Laurenti, becomes a person of interest. It seems Esther is writing a mystery novel in which her now-dead tenant appears as a character. The plot spins out with an intricate story and character development. Engberg writes of the two cops: “He thought Anette was a bit of a bulldozer; she called him sensitive and a wimp. On good days they harped on each other knowingly like an old married couple. On bad days, he just wanted to throw her into the sea.”
Engberg was a dancer and choreographer when she and her husband took off on an extended journey in 2005. She kept a journal and wrote travel articles for Danish magazines, “a kind of kick-start” to her writing career, she says. Then, in 2016, she published her first thriller in Denmark, which went on to hit #1 on all the Danish bestseller lists. That novel, titled The Tenant in English, will mark her stateside debut.
Engberg wrote a crime novel, she explains, because she grew up with crime fiction and no television. “My mother always said that good literature is good literature, and she loved well-written crime novels. I learned English from reading Sue Grafton, Dorothy Sayers, and Ruth Rendall. I’ve always loved the genre. And I go where the ideas take me, and with crime fiction, the ideas just come.”
Engberg tells me that the character of Esther de Laurenti came to her while she was walking along a beach and saw a big sign that read Laurenti. “The name stuck with me,” she says, “and the woman moved into my head. I saw her—a would-be novelist, a literature professor, her two little dogs—and from there the novel evolved.”
Niclas Salomonsson, who has an eponymous agency in Sweden that represents Nordic authors, pitched The Tenant to Scout publisher Jennifer Bergstrom at Frankfurt in 2018. Gallery senior editor Jackie Cantor (who buys for both Gallery and Scout) says she “got wind of it” from Bergstrom, who negotiated the three-book deal for North American rights after reading the book overnight before she left Frankfurt.
Cantor, the book’s editor, recalls reading it at her desk while everyone was flying home to New York City. “I loved the voice, the characters, the two detectives, and especially the sense of place,” she says. “This is a wonderful acquisition for the imprint. We don’t have anything else like it on the list. It’s a great book—a dark story leavened with wit.” Cantor also says that Engberg was wonderful to work with: “She’s lovely, warm, unpretentious, and was so responsive to editorial suggestions”.
Engberg’s agent, Federico Ambrosini, inherited the author in 2016. “It was a lucky inheritance,” he says. “She’s so down-to-earth.”
Including the U.S., The Tenant has sold in 17 foreign territories to date. “We want to really launch her,” Cantor says. “It’s early, but it will be a big rollout. We hope to bring her here, because she’s such a great ambassador for her work. When she came to New York to meet everyone, we all fell in love with her.”
All three books in the contracted series have been published in Denmark. A fourth came out in September. Engberg, who consistently hits the bestseller lists in Denmark and other countries, says she is still “pinching herself” about her deal with Scout. “They have shown a great deal of faith in the series,” she tells me.
Another example of faith is Engberg’s career path. “I’m not a big planner by nature,” she says. “I’m more intuitive, which can get me in a tangle. I was pursuing a career in theater and within one week of my first novel being published, I had the opening night of my first theater production as a director. It was stressful, but I knew then that writing was what I wanted to do. I never felt clearer about anything in my professional life.”
Engberg adds that even though her Danish publisher told her not to quit her day job, because it’s hard to make a living as a writer, she quit the theater that week and was happy.
I connected easily with Engberg. She grew up in the heart of Copenhagen, where she still lives surrounded by family. I can easily relate to that. She loves her city: “all of it, including the dark corners, which is what I write about.” I can relate to that. And we bonded over language. There was talk, she tells me, of her adapting the Danish names, but she resisted, and I agree with that decision. But I can’t resist noting the title of The Tenant in Danish: Krokodillevogteren.