To my surprise, I really enjoyed ‘I’m Travelling Alone’ and I’m now keen to read the other two books in the series.
‘I’m Travelling Alone’ has been on my shelf for five years, unread because each time I picked it up, I rejected it because of its central image. The idea of finding a dead six-year-old girl hanging from a tree in the forest, dressed in an out-moded school uniform, with an airline tag reading ‘I’m Travelling Alone’ around her neck is chilling. Discovering that she’s going to be the first of many is worse. I worried that this book might be one of those that glamorised the ingenuity of the serial killer and asked me to get inside the mind of someone who thinks killing children is OK.
I decided that I’d reached the Read It Or Release It point with the book, so I added it as the letter I in my TBR ABC Challenge and read it already half expecting to set it aside partway through.
As soon as I started reading, I knew I was in for a treat. There was no frantic rush to dive into the twisted mind of a serial killer as they thrill to the slaughter of a child. Instead, the focus was on taking the time to build the characters of the two main detectives, Holger Munch and Mia Kruger.
It’s easy to see Mia as the main character. She’s the thirty-something good looking one with an exceptional ability to put patterns together yet it’s Holger the fifty-something over-sized one heading up a Violent Crimes Unit that plucks Mia straight out of the police academy and gives her and the other people on his team the space and the environment to turn Mia’s insights into actionable police work. I came away from the book wanting to know more about both of them.
I’m not going to go into the details of their backgrounds here as part of the fun of the book is in discovering that information as you go along, but I will comment on the aspects of their personalities that appealed to me.
The book opens with Mia living in self-imposed isolation on a remote island in Norway, self-medicating her way through depression and counting down the days to the date on which she has decided to end her life. What struck me most about this was how unsensational the telling of it was. Mia is presented as being in pain but not as being broken. Her decision is shown as a rational choice and one consistent with who she is. This attitude towards suicide appealed to me. It wasn’t a recommendation or an endorsement just a recognition that, in the right circumstances, continuing to live is a choice you have the right not to make.
In some ways, Holger is more complicated than Mia. He has more life and more mistakes behind him. He also has more to lose in terms of people who he loves. I liked his humour and the way he protected and enabled his team. I also liked that he wasn’t perfect. He frays around the edges when under pressure and often gives way to anger. Yet his team are immensely loyal to him even when he’s at his worst.
I liked that Mia and Holger weren’t a two-man show, they were part of a team, each of whom had something to contribute. The team is virtually drowning in clues and suspects, some clearly set up by the killer as distractions and I liked that it took the whole team to sort through it all and see where the truth lay. I thought the way the team dynamics were displayed, particularly through the use of dialogue, was skilfully done.
One of the strengths of the novel is the pacing. The plot is complicated and the story is told through separate storylines that you know are related but you don’t know how. The speed and sequence in which information was revealed in each storyline ratcheted up the tension and continuously made me reassess what I thought I knew.
I needn’t have worried about this book glamorising the serial killer’s view of the world. If the book has core messages they are ‘This shouldn’t be allowed to happen to children’ and that losing someone to an early death creates a sense of loss that doesn’t dissipate over time.
For me, the thing that worked least well in the book was that the bad guys were so odd and yet so organised. that pushed at the boundaries of my willingness to suspend disbelief. Even so, they remained plausible. They also came across as fundamentally broken and were never glamorised.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘I’m Travelling Alone’ narrated by Laura Paton. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.