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think of a number
1 march 2019
I learned of Anders Bodelsen's minor-classic crime novel Think of a Number via Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen's critical study Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Stougaard-Nielsen sees Think of a Number as crucial in the development of an atmosphere for later Scandinavian crime thrillers: amoral, affectless, cynical about the state and the police. Bodelsen certainly drew on American hard-boileds and procedurals as models, but America is supposed to be amoral and cynical, while Denmark and Sweden are not. And the affectless part was a new element in the mix.
Bodelsen also draws on the noirish sensibilities of Patricia Highsmith, and the roman dur tradition of Georges Simenon and Francis Carco. Which is not to say that he necessarily read any of those writers, but that they all share a mid-20th-century sensibility that drew them to stories of people getting away with crimes and finding that getting away with them can be worse than getting caught.
Think of a Number, as its title suggests, poses a thought experiment. Or several. Before the title thought, mild-mannered bank teller Flemming Borck wonders if he's been handed the perfect crime. He discovers that someone is planning to rob his bank. What would you do? Tell the cops? tell your boss? tell the robber, even, in an attempt to dissuade him? Or would you siphon a huge amount of money into your lunchbox, give the robber a fraction of the sum when he committed his crime, and then make out as if the robber had taken it all?
And of course, then what would you do? Even if the police and the bank management suspected nothing, you'd have to hide the money, and you'd have to hide your surplus success from the robber and his accomplices. You couldn't go out and buy a new Volvo, even if you looked longingly at the one in the showroom window. (If a new Volvo doesn't sound like the sexiest thing imaginable, remember this is 1968 in Denmark, and remember you're a mild-mannered bank teller.)
Things play out in chaotic, unexpected ways, in typical noir/heist fashion, with plans improvised, executed, and unraveling (which leads to more improvisation). I won't summarize the plot here except to say that while there are cops in the story, and we even see the point of view of one of them, it's not a cop story.
Think of a Number interests me in that smell forms a large part of its sensory resources. I've been very hyposmic for a long time, and more and more dysosmic as I get older – and that's a stark contrast to Flemming Borck. At times it seems that Borck makes his way through the world led by his nose. It doesn't always lead him in the best directions.
Bodelsen, Anders. Think of a Number. [Tænk på et tal, 1968.] Translated by David Hohnen. New York: Harper, 1969.