NPR logo

'Before I Burn' Uses Autobiography To Tell A Crime Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Before I Burn' Uses Autobiography To Tell A Crime Story

Book Reviews


Scandinavian crime novels have become so popular that some publishers even have a name for the genre: Scandi-crime. Many of these books keep readers right on the edge of their seats all the way through. But a new Norwegian crime novel takes a more subtle approach. Here's reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin, to tell us about it.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: My favorite crime novels always combine more than one genre - like a detective mystery that's really psychological, or a police captain who happens to be a gourmet. In the case of "Before I Burn," by Gaute Heivoll, the mash-up is suspense meets memoir. It sounds a little gimmicky, but I promise it's absolutely not. Instead, we have a semi-autobiographical novel that's poetic, gripping and at times, even profound.

In the summer of 1978, an arsonist terrorized a small village in Southern Norway; 10 fires over the course of a month, buildings burned to the ground. Just after that, in the same week the last house was torched, a baby boy was christened in a local church. He turns out to be our author. Thirty years later, he's come home to make sense of what happened the summer he was born.

The story from that point follows two paths. The first is about the fires. The author goes around interviewing people he's known all his life. He wants to hear their memories about the nights they couldn't sleep, wondering which house would be next. Heivoll's writing is terrifically sensory. The fires sounded as if the sky itself was being torn apart. The flames were like large wild birds twisting around one another, above one another, into one another.

I won't give away any spoilers, though Heivoll does identify the arsonist early on. The guy's a local, well-known to the community. The mystery we have to solve is less who did it than why, but the book is also a memoir. As a young man, Heivoll wasn't an outcast, but he couldn't really connect with other teenagers. He left the village to study law in the big city, but then he quit after his father was diagnosed with cancer.

His path from that point to writing is a dark one but in the end, it's writing that saves him. Ultimately, this book is a portrait of these two young men - one an arsonist, the other an artist. Of course, it's impossible to really experience another person's perspective, to know why they set buildings on fire or why they feel compelled to write books. But "Before I Burn" makes a persuasive case that the novel is still the best method we've got.

CORNISH: The book is called "Before I Burn." It was reviewed by Rosecrans Baldwin.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.