I’m a big fan of Anne Holt’s writing and her Hanne Wilhelmsen series in particular. Nevertheless, I found her last book translated into English, Death of the Demon, disappointing in that it was a relatively slight story that failed to engage. However, Holt is back on form with The Lion’s Mouth. She portrays the collective shock that follows the death of the Norwegian Prime Minister and the subsequent investigation. The story is a surprise. Instead of a tale of high political drama, we get intimate portraits of the people around the dead politician and a surprising conclusion.
Norwegian Prime Minster Birgitte Volter is found dead in her office, shot in the head by an unknown assailant. Norway is put on high security alert and rumours circulate about possible attempts on the life of the Swedish PM and attacks on other Scandinavian countries. A massive police operation gets underway to find the perpetrator and Hanne Wilhelmsen, currently working in the US, finds herself unable to keep away from Oslo. She stays in the apartment of Billy T, the physically huge detective with whom she has developed a surprising working relationship. Secrets from Brigitte’s past threaten to overshadow the investigation but may also hold the key to the tragedy.
Although this is a Hanne Wilhelmsen book, the detective plays a relatively minor role in the narrative. Instead we are treated to multiple points of view, principally from the politicians and family of Birgitte. In less experienced hands this might make following the plot difficult but it resulted in a very human story. The politicians, in particular, came across as a disparate bunch of characters desperate to hold onto their positions of authority.
As in previous Holt books we get a strong sense of the judicial system playing out its role. This is unsurprising from an author who served as Norway’s Minister of Justice in the 1990s and her experience adds authenticity to the narrative. However, it is worth mentioning that the book appears to have been co-written. I don’t have a problem with this but I’d have preferred to see the her fellow writer’s name on the front cover as well as the title page
Despite this, The Lion’s Mouth was my first book of 2015 and I hope all my reading to be of a similar quality.
Thanks to Corvus for my review copy. The translation was by Anne Bruce.
Anne Holt is another Scandinavian author whose books have been translated out of order. Unlike some writers however, such as Jo Nesbo and Liza Marklund, it does make a significant difference to the sense of the narrative. In 1222, detective Hanne Wilhelmsen is in a wheelchair and reference is made to children she has had with her partner, Cecile. In Death of the Demon, the catastrophe that clearly befalls Hanne has yet to occur and part of the narrative is given over to a heated debate whether she and Cecile should have children. It’s quite frustrating for the reader who knows future plot lines, although my guess is that the success of 1222 is responsible for the earlier, and slighter, books now being translated into English.
Like the previous novel in the series, Blessed are Those Who Thirst, the book resolves around a single issue: in this case a damaged child who may have been involved in the murder of a social worker. Olav is grossly overweight due to poor early childhood and he is sent to group foster home which he immediately hates. When the home’s head, Agnes Vestavik, is found with a knife through her heart, Olav is discovered missing although Hanne is reluctant to lay the blame immediately on the absent child. Agnes appears to have dug out secrets of other carers in the home and the identity of the murderer remains unclear.
One of the attractions of Anne Holt’s books is that they’re not the huge tomes that characterise much of Scandinavian crime fiction. In many ways they remind me of the books I read as a teenager, with a single plot strand and a tight narrative structure. And I do still enjoy reading this style of book but my problem with Death of the Demon is that the plot is very slight. A woman is killed; a boy runs away. And that’s about it. We get to see slightly more of Hanne’s character but compared to the series’ excellent debut, The Blind Goddess, and the atmospheric 1222, this book pales in comparison. It was a decent enough read but nothing more. And I’ve come to expect much more from crime fiction these days. And perhaps the length of novels is a reflection of this.
I’m sure Holt’s fans will read the book anyway. We already know that this is a series on its way somewhere and I’m not giving up on it. But fingers crossed that the next one will be more substantial. The translation, incidentally, by Anne Bruce, is wonderfully clear.