Oslo in November. The first snow of the season has fallen. A boy named Jonas wakes in the night to find his mother gone. Out his window, in the cold moonlight, he sees the snowman that inexplicably appeared in the yard earlier in the day. Around its neck is his mother’s pink scarf.
Brief commentary, rather than a full review.
Read for our f2f bookclub, every book by Jo Nesbø reminds you to read the rest of the series.
It's partially the way that the balance between atmosphere, plot and character is maintained so elegantly. It's partially the way that Harry Hole might be an archetypal loner, but he's not with out a sense of humour, and profound confusion. It's also to do with the manner in which the plots are so cleverly constructed, even if we are dealing with yet another serial killer.
Needless to say everything adds up to a small amount of kicking myself over how far behind I am with this series.
Review - The Lion's Mouth, Anne Holt
From the internationally bestselling author of 1222, called the “godmother of modern Norwegian crime” by Jo Nesbø, the next book in the Edgar Award–nominated mystery series: Hanne Wilhelmsen is on the case when someone murders the prime minister of Norway.
Less than six months after taking office, the Norwegian Prime Minister is found dead. She has been shot in the head. But was it a politically motivated assassination or personal revenge?
The Hanne Wilhelmsen series from Norwegian author Anne Holt is fabulous, even if it is being translated out of sequence. Which means in THE LION'S MOUTH, Wilhelmsen, who doesn't make an appearance until later in the novel and is not the central investigator anyway, is also walking around. In the novels already made available to many of us she's in a wheelchair permanently. Allowing for the slight confusion that could cause, these books work well as you can, worse comes to worse, approach them as standalones if necessary, although obviously character introduction and development always works better when you start at the beginning.
The main protagonist of this book, Billy T is a slightly unusual Norwegian policeman, what with his complicated personal life, skinhead / punk style looks and dress sense, a love of Opera and his sons. He's also one of the very few cops (and people for that matter) who share affection and respect with Wilhelmsen. When she eventually does make an appearance in the novel - having moved to the US with her partner, she finds herself staying with Billy T, and it's obvious that these two outsiders are both good friends, and like minded investigators.
Which is just as well as the plot here is complicated without being complex. The locked room assassination of the Norwegian Prime Minister means that motive becomes particularly important, as method is not immediately obvious. Whether or not her shooting is politically motivated and even then from within her own ranks, or those opposed is not straightforward as there are a number of other complications. It's particularly sobering that this novel, originally published in 1997, also expands on the possibility of a neo-Nazi plot to murder leading figures in Norway. Other complications are more personal and much closer to home.
Where the plot has particular credence though is in the background, infighting and intrigue occurring within political circles. Given that Holt has, in the past, held the position of Minister for Justice and for this and one of her other earlier novels, credit is shared with former State Secretary Berit Reiss-Anderson, it would seem reasonable to assume that these aspects are written from a position of both knowledge and experience.
That doesn't however, overwhelm in terms of motive, and the background of the Prime Minister and her family is trawled through, as is that of her childhood friend, Supreme Court Judge Benjamin Grinde. Aside from him being the last known person to visit the Prime Minister's Office before she was killed, his position as Chair of a Commission looking into a the increase of young baby deaths around 1965 also has implications for them all.
Holt is not afraid to write strong characters with unpleasant edges that aren't sanded down and don't apologise for what they are. Here she's combined them into a plot that looks at the rights and wrongs of society and the possible implications of power, corruption and nepotism. All of which made for a really engaging read.
Review - THE DROWNED BOY, Karin Fossum
Carmen and Nicolai failed to resuscitate their son, Tommy, after finding him floating in their backyard pond. When Inspector Skarre arrives on the scene, Carmen reports that Tommy, a healthy toddler with Down syndrome, wandered into the garden while Nicolai was working in the basement and she was cleaning the house. Skarre senses something is off with Carmen’s story and consults his trusted colleague, the famed Inspector Sejer. An autopsy reveals Tommy’s lungs to be full of soap.
The 11th Inspector Sejer novel from Karin Fossum, specialising again in the why of a crime. Why in this instance is a series of very big questions. Why did a young toddler end up dead in a pond near his house? Why did nobody think that secure fencing would be necessary for any child that age so close to water? Why is it particularly noteworthy that Tommy is a healthy boy, who happens to have Down's Syndrome? Why is his mother behaving so weirdly, and more to the point is she a spoilt princess or a bit odd? Why do Sejer and Skarre think there's something odd about this death and what can they do about that suspicion with very little evidence?
Fossum often tackles difficult subjects and this is not the first time she's put characters with Down's Syndrome in the forefront of consideration. Whilst she uses this as a way of exploring reactions and expectations it's not disrespectful, opportunistic or uninformed, but it is pointed and thought-provoking. Even more chillingly in THE DROWNED BOY as the parents of young Tommy, Carmen and Nicolai, are very young. The reader is left wondering if they are too young to be parents at all, let alone to a disabled child, or has age less to do with it than just being dysfunctional people. Certainly Carmen seems way too narcissistic to possibly care for anybody but herself. Nicolai on the other hand seems brittle, young, overwhelmed and despite trying to parent, ineffectual and ephemeral.
In contrast to this young couple, and her rather controlling, domineering father, Sejer is the epitome of calm, kind and thoughtful. Struggling with the need to address a health condition of his own, there's something about the reactions to Tommy's death that worries him from the start. In his normal manner he doesn't take those concerns up front to the possible suspects, instead gently digs away, prodding and searching for an explanation.
Readers who are passionately addicted to investigation and closure in their crime fiction may find Fossum's books tough reading. Because they look deep into the human psyche, they aren't about the how or even necessarily the who, although the truth is eventually revealed, as are some further shocks and sad outcomes. Not that the reveal is necessarily because of just good investigative techniques, but rather the way that people react to pressure and the spotlight.
Why would a young Down's Syndrome boy drown, naked in a pond near his home on a hot summer's day and how will his short life and that death affect those around him? There's no question that anybody is going to get away with anything in THE DROWNED BOY, but the why remains the focus, and all the more heart-rendering as a result.
Review - THE MURDER OF HARRIET KROHN, Karin Fossum
Charlo Torp has problems. He's grieving for his late wife, he's lost his job, and gambling debts have alienated him from his teenage daughter. Desperate, his solution is to rob an elderly woman of her money and silverware. But Harriet Krohn fights back, and Charlo loses control.
Wracked with guilt, Charlo attempts to rebuild his life. But the police are catching up with him, and Inspector Konrad Sejer has never lost a case yet.
The preoccupation for Scandinavian crime fiction of many readers is sometimes questioned. One response is to get people to read Karin Fossum's Inspector Konrad Sejer series. Within the one series, Fossum is able to shift the perspective, analyse the reasons why, explore the outcomes and long-term effects of crime, and play with accepted perceptions of clear cut resolutions. In THE MURDER OF HARRIET KROHN, whilst still part of the Sejer series, she's tipped the perspective completely - this is not a whodunnit, or even necessarily a whydunnit, but a how do you live with what you've just done.
There's absolutely no doubt from the opening set up of this book who Charlo Torp is, what a self-inflicted mess he's made of his life, and what his solution to the problem is. It's quite a chilling portrayal. The matter-of-fact way in which Torp sets out to murder Harriet Krohn and his initial reactions post the crime.
It would be an easy thing to have him remain ambivalent, self-justifying. Comfortable that his decision is what was required to sort out his own life and his relationship with his daughter. Certainly post his crime, and as a result of the money and possessions he steals, his life takes a turn for the better. He's able to reconnect with his daughter, he can provide her with the one thing she longs for more than anything else. But somewhere in the middle of all that happy ever after there's something more than just the pressure he's feeling from Inspector Sejer's investigation.
The investigation does take a back seat in this book, but fans of crime fiction that's all about the "chase" would be doing themselves a disservice by missing THE MURDER HARRIET KROHN. This is a carefully laid out, conservatively presented, seeringly understated, big dose of what goes around, comes around. The frightening thing is how blithely ignorant Torp is of what's happening, how his choices impact other people, and what he could have done differently. Until it's way too late.
1222 - Anne Holt
1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered.
Take one gloriously grumpy central protagonist, add that train crash, include a massive snowstorm cutting off a train full of people 1222 metres above sea level in an inaccessible hotel, add a mysterious locked carriage and a group of shadowy unknown passengers, then kill off a high-profile passenger and see what happens.
What happens is that our grumpy protagonist, Hanne Wilhemlsen, ex-police officer, in a wheelchair as a result of being shot on duty, has to work out what is going on before the body count continues to increase. With no official help from the outside, and way too much interfering help on the inside, Hanne and a small group of trusted people - some passengers, some staff, some locals, need to work out who wanted to kill off a seemingly harmless, albeit annoying, priest. And the killing doesn't stop there.
Of course this plot has more than a hat-tip to a few perennial favourite devices - a closed room setting, albeit a biggish closed room in this example. This is a very large, rather luxurious resort, capable of taking in 269 or so people at a moment's notice. Then there's the idea of the thinking, observational detective - in this case enforced because of physical restrictions, there's something vaguely reminiscent of Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poriot about Hanne, although her Archie / Hastings is embodied in more than one person in 1222.
There is a large potential cast of passengers, staff and local helpers so it's just possible that the concept of a resort (that's further divided after a particular storm event) could be what makes the action being centred around a very small group of people feasible. Despite this, there was more than one point where I did wonder where everybody else was hiding - 269 plus people not being a small number after all. Add to that the secretive sub-thread about the mysterious closed off carriage, and you couldn't help wondering what was going on behind closed doors, besides the murder plotting of course!
That secretive sub-thread is probably the only part of the book that simply flat-out, doesn't work. This reader had to assume that perhaps the closed carriage was there as a bit of a hap-tip to the classic red-herring (being another perennial favourite), but to be honest, it didn't work as a red-herring throughout the book and the resolution... well it was just pointless.
Ignoring that bit of off-kilter action, the rest of the book was really good. I really like Hanne (and not just because I like grumpy protagonists!), and the use of the setting to provide a closed off, claustrophobic environment along with a sense of potential threat worked. There was a good cast of supporting characters, some nice touches of humour and good pace, and for readers who like to work out the whodonnit aspects, the author has played pretty fair - you've got a good chance of sorting it out, although you will be waiting until the last minute to get your deductions confirmed.
After a bit of a look around it seems that, in that delightful habit publishers have designed to drive readers mildly bats, 1222 is the eighth Hanne Wilhelmsen novel, but the first to be translated into English. Hopefully we'll get the rest of the series "toots sweet". In the right order would be greatly appreciated.
THE WATER'S EDGE - Karin Fossum
Walking through the woods one warm September day, Reinhardt and Kristine Ris pass a man who is in a state of agitation. Unusually in a small town, he does not return Kristine's smile and drives off in a hurry. As the couple continue on their walk they make a terrible discovery: lying in a cluster of trees is the lifeless body of a young boy. It is a moment that will change their lives forever.
One of the things that I particularly love about really good crime fiction is the way that it highlights the human condition - warts and all. The thing I particularly love about Karin Fossum's books is the way that she explores the notion of the sad, the stupid, the moments in which things go awry. To my mind, there's something profoundly more sobering about the notion of momentary mistake or misjudgement - rather than the automatic presumption of evil.
THE WATER'S EDGE tackles the difficult subject of the death of a child (and the disappearance of another). When Reinhardt and Kristine Ris briefly pass an agitated man at the start of one of their regular walks, they have no idea that they will need to remember that man, his appearance, his state of mind and his vehicle. They only realise that after they discover the body of a young boy in the woods, and Inspector Sejer starts asking a lot of questions. The circumstances of the boy's death appear to be indicating a dreadful fate for the little boy, although the exact cause of death remains a mystery for quite a while. Sejer's investigation takes on an even more sinister overtone when a second little boy disappears.
Whilst the death of the little boy and the search for his attacker is paramount to Sejer, there's some interesting psychological exploration going on in THE WATER'S EDGE. Reinhardt and Kristine's marriage is a fragile affair to start off with, although Reinhardt's bull-headed stubbornness and self-involvement means he probably had no idea that Kristine has been having second thoughts about the relationship for a long time. As Reinhardt's voyeuristic reaction to the discover of the little boy becomes more and more extreme, it simply confirms for Kristine that her marriage has been a mistake. Add to that Reinhardt's refusal to have children and Kristine's increasing yearning for a child, and this is a relationship which is destined for problems. The portrayal of the affects of the boy's death in such a personal thing as the relationship of the hapless discoverers of the body poignantly draws a picture of how profound and unexpected the affects of murder can be.
The other side of the story - the perpetrator is equally telling. As strange as this may seem, there's some room for compassion for the perpetrator of these acts - these moments of misjudgement. Lifelong damage, instant mistakes, the sad, the pathetic, the inexcusable, the stupid, the unwittingly cruel, shame and personal loathing. It applies equally to the death of a poor little boy, his body laid out with some care and reverence in the woods, as it does to another little boy - overweight, over-indulged, different, ashamed and shamed against, who has gone missing.
THE REDBREAST - Jo Nesbo
Okay - a little housekeeping first. I can't get accented characters to work properly here ... yet. I'm working on it because it annoys me as much as it undoubtedly annoys readers of these posts.
Secondly, a little background to the Harry Hole (pronounced - we think - Hurler, but corrections from those who really know would be extremely welcome)! THE DEVIL'S STAR (released in English first) is actually number 5 in the series, THE REDBREAST (released in English second) is number 3 in the series and NEMESIS (to be released about now, so third) is actually number 4 in the series. Confused. So were the rest of us :)
On the upside the first two available books are readable out of order, although THE REDBREAST does explain Harry's situation and demeanor in THE DEVIL'S STAR.
But THE REDBREAST - well it's a wonderful book. As you often find in these wonderful, multi-layered and textural (that's textured as opposed to text) books from fabulous Scandinavian authors, we're treated to some entertainment, with an exploration of a societal problem / an itch that needs to be scratched. THE REDBREAST explores the ongoing fallout from the Second World War. That war has ramifications in the local society right up until the current day, and it's worthwhile reading THE REDBREAST just to see how the war affected other cultures, maybe countries that were much closer to the action than we were - for example - in Australia.
Nesbo is also the sort of author who is not afraid to cause the reader trauma - characters that you get close to can die, their death can involve other characters who continue on. Nothing is straight forward and nothing is constantly easy.
If this makes THE REDBREAST perhaps sound a bit too much, then it shouldn't. It's the sort of book that moves backwards and forwards between the then (1940's at War) and now (1999) as Harry investigates the existence of a very unexpected weapon, without necessarily knowing who has it or why. There are sub-plots built into the narrative as well, neo-Nazi's; drugs; all sorts of underground activities that clearly show that life these days isn't straightforward. All of those threads stack up in comparison against life in the war years - the complications of whose side to fight on, the reaction to collaborators when the war was over, the difficulties of surviving through a war, and in a time when attitudes were considerably different than they are today.
THE WRITING ON THE WALL - Gunnar Staalesen
Originally published in Norway in 1995, Gunnar Staalesen's The Writing on The Wall is set in Bergen Norway in the early '90s. Private Eye Varg Veum returns from the funeral of his ex-wife's most recent husband to find the distressed mother of missing 16 year old girl Torild waiting to see him. Around the same time Bergen is buzzing with rumours about the death of Judge Brandt after he is found dead in a hotel room wearing flimsy female underwear.
Veum starts digging into the last known sightings and movements of Torild and her few friends - all of which seem to centre around a local amusement arcade. What initially seems pretty normal, rebellious behaviour seems to be covering up something more sinister and Veum is soon receiving death threats and Torild is found dead.
Varg Veum has a reflective almost pessimistic attitude, enhanced by the first person POV of the book. The reader is treated to everything that evolves in the story from Veum's point of view and with his observations and reactions in stark focus. There is something "Philip Marlowe" about Veum - not just because he's a lone PI, working the cases that the police cannot or will not touch, but also in his attitude and in some of the wisecracks and observations.
Ultimately it's a book about the unpleasant underbelly of a society with some seriously skewed morality covered by an increasingly thin veneer of normality. Varg Veum is a perfect set of eyes to observe all of this and whilst this is not a comforting read and the first person voice is sometimes a challenge to read, it was an interesting social observation.
THE DEVIL'S STAR - Jo Nesbo
In the middle of a long hot summer in Oslo, a young woman's body is found murdered in her flat, with one finger cut off and a tiny five pointed star diamond beneath her eyelid.
Detective Harry Hole is a chronic alcoholic, on the verge of being sacked from the police force; but it's summer, everyone's on holidays and his boss has no choice but to assign the case to Harry and his colleague Tom Waaler. Harry doesn't trust Tom and suspects him of, amongst other things, arms smuggling. Harry's drinking problem is greatly exacerbated by his guilt and distress over the death of his work partner, who he suspects was killed by Tom and despite his objections and his chronic drinking, he has to stay on the case.
A woman is then reported missing and the only clue is her severed finger wearing a ring with the same sort of star-shaped red diamond and everyone realises that they have a serial killer in Oslo.
As bodies continue to be discovered it seems that 5 is the common denominator: five points to the star, 5 fingers, and 5 days between each victim. Whilst Harry is determined to find this killer, and to expose Tom he finds himself on the run from the police and forced to act to protect the son of his estranged lover into the bargain.
Reading this synopsis, you can almost feel the reaction. Alcoholic policeman in trouble with his boss. A serial killer. Bizarre "clues" from the killer. Dangerous cliche ridden territory you would think, but from the opening of the book which describes the passage of water through a building from the point of view of the history of the building, through to the struggle that Harry has in handling his alcoholism, relationships, and the personal campaign he carries to expose corruption in the police force the cliches are not evident and this is a very promising debut novel.
Starting out with a disappearance, switching to the investigation of a serial killer, following the exposure of a corrupt policeman and then a final twist that is quite deftly handled taking the book from a crime fiction story to a tense thriller was clever and highly engaging. Oslo was an interesting setting with sufficient of the location provided to give some context to the story, but deftly avoiding becoming a travelogue.
Definitely an entry in the increasing list of Scandinavian crime fiction author must reads.