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.