Oslo Blues

Anne Holt, 1222 (2007, translated by Marlaine Delargy)

Anne Holt, Salige er de som tørster (Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, 1994, translated by Anne Bruce)

Anne Holt, Demonens død (Death of the Demon, 1995, translated by Anne Bruce)

Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen, Løvens gap (The Lion’s Mouth, 1997, translated by Anne Bruce)

I prefer, where possible, to read series in order — but not all novels necessarily get translated and I found a copy of 1222 so figured I should go for it, although this is several titles after the first. So, the detective Hanne Wilhelmsen is in a wheelchair, she seems to have split from her girlfriend and a minor character has been killed off. I’ve missed a lot.

Hanne is onboard a train when it crashes in the snow in the mountains and she and a couple of hundred passengers are marooned in an isolated hotel as the weather worsens. There is a suspicious group of passengers, sequestered away from the main groups, and an expected mismatch of Norwegians, some of whom may know each other, so inevitably there’s a series of murders that she is drawn into trying to solve. There is more than a hint of And Then There Were None (and Ironside?) here, and a first person narration. And compared to the databases and forensics of most contemporary scandi noir, the methods are back to basics. This is clearly superior to the debut, so…

… with a certain inevitability I found books two to five in Kim’s Bookshop in Chichester.

Håkon Sand is absent from Blessed, on paternity leave, so Wilhelmsen take centre stage alongside undercover cop Billy T. There are two crimes to solve, as the temperature rises in Oslo to unlikely levels — apparent corpseless crime scenes full of blood with cryptic numbers drawn in them and the brutal rape of medical student, Kristine Håverstad. Wilhelmsen slowly works towards the linkage of the two strands, whilst Kristine and her father, Finn, consider revenge. The plotting is very deft and there’s a satisfying ending. The title comes from Matthew 5: 6: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

Death feels like a bit of a step back, and has more than a hint of Gunnar Staalesen, about it: the crime scene is a foster home, which clearly has its corners of corruption, disrupted by the arrival of twelve year old Olav Håkonsen, although he vanishes after the stabbing to death of the home’s director, Agnes Vestavik. Could he be responsible? Or does it relate to whatever else is going on here? We get a bit more Billy T here and Wilhelmsen is struggling with whether to come out at work. Cecelie plays a bigger role than in the first novel — she gets dialogue. Billy T is a contradiction (and will get more so), more than respected by Wilhelmsen, somewhat sexist, with four children by as many mothers, the maverick cop no longer doing undercover. I confess I was less interested in the foster home characters than I should have been and the interpolated account by Olav’s mother. It builds to a Dahl-esque climax and a twist that leaves more questions than it answers.

The same might be said of The Lion’s Mouth, cowritten with Berit Reiss-Andersen  — not that you’d know it from the front cover (naughty publisher). Under a Labour Party government, Reiss-Andersen was state secretary for the Minister of Justice and Police 1996-1997, and is granddaughter of Norwegian poet Gunnar Reiss-Andersen. The novel begins with the murder of the (fictional) Norwegian prime minister Birgitte Volter in her own office — she had assumed office after the unexpected resignation of the (real) Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in October 1996. Volter is not as secure as she might be — there’s Middle East peace (the Oslo Accords) which may be unravelling, there’s a potential scandal involving babies from the 1996 and there are potential growing right wing groups. The murder of Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, in 1986 is in the background, a murder unsolved at the time of this novel. Billy T. begins the investigation as Wilhelmsen is in America, but there are over a hundred police officers and secret service operatives on the case; Wilhelmsen does fly in to help out. The actions shifts between these two, a supreme court justice who was likely the last to see Volter, Volter’s widower and son, a dodgy journalist, the security guard on shift during the murder, a white supremacist, political rivals… this might explain why this novel is 400 pages rather than to 200 or 250 pages of the earlier books. The two authors do keep it gripping, although as in earlier titles there are rather too many anonymous character scenes that work rather better on screen than on the page. Meanwhile, presumably that is the real King and Queen of Norway, and Varg Veum has a rather odd cameo.

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