The Heroine’s Journey in “The Valhalla Murders”

In recent years, some of the most popular mystery novels have come from Scandinavian countries. From the Martin Beck Novels of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall and the Kurt Wallander novels  of Henning Mankell – all of whom hailed from Sweden – to the Harry Hole novels of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, we’ve been entertained with all the intricacies of Scandinavian murder and police procedure.

One of my personal favorites is the four seasons of the original Swedish-Danish production “The Bridge”  which dates back to 2011 and involves a Swedish woman detective (played by Sofia Helin) who partners, over time, with two different Danish counterparts to solve a number of gruesome murders.

Since I’ve been more or less holed up at home over the past weeks – thank you, COVID-19 – I’ve been looking for other mysteries to watch. A dear friend suggested to me the Netflix Original series “The Valhalla Murders”.  The series, which comprises eight episodes, is set in and around Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik. It involves a police investigator named Kata who is assigned a murder case that quickly becomes a serial-murder case. Assigned to assist her is Arnar, an investigator who, though called in from Oslo, is a native Icelander.

As with all such programming, the storyline involves far more than merely a who-dunnit. As the police work diligently, mostly a step or two behind the murderer, they eventually discover not only who the perpetrator is but the source of why the crimes have been committed – which leads, gradually, to a far larger web of corruption in the country’s upper circles.

And all of it revolves around a long-ago-closed juvenile detention center called Valhalla. The home was called Valhalla, after the hall where Viking warriors would feast in eternity, following their deaths, according to Norse mythology. Apparently, the institution depicted in The Valhalla Murders is based on a real boys’ home where abuse took place in 1940s Iceland.

Could it be that, years ago, dreadful things happened in this sordid earthly Valhalla, things which turned a vulnerable young child into a killer? Or is the culprit someone who is trying to cover up what happened there in the past? Whatever the case, the killer seems to be slipping through the hands of the police – and each time they lose their grip, another victim turns up murdered in the same brutal way.

Meanwhile, each of our protagonists faces personal challenges. The divorced and work-obsessed Kata has to deal with her officious Ex (and his much younger new wife) in their shared dealings with Kata’s 16-year-old son – dealings that become complicated after the boy attends a teen party in which a crime takes place.

For his part, Arnar still has family in Reykjavik. But he’s estranged from them, even from his sister who keeps calling him, telling him that their father is dying. And that estrangement is due to his family’s conservatively religious concerns and to his own troubled past, both of which are clearly connected.

“The Valhalla Murders” – each episode of which runs a little more than 45 minutes – is definitely worth a binge-watch.  It’s set in a breathtakingly beautiful country, in sunny weather or when covered in snow. Even when accompanying a storyline involving a particularly ugly series of crimes, that natural beauty shines though.