Review: Anne Holt – The Lion’s Mouth

The Lion's MouthI’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.

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Review: Anne Holt – Death of the Demon

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, Death of the Demondetective 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.

Review: Anne Holt – Blessed Are Those Who Thirst

Anne HoltNow that publisher Corvus is translating the books featuring Hanne Wilhelmsen in order, we are getting to see the development of the character from her early police career to the physically and emotionally damaged Hanne in 1222. The first book in the series, The Blind Goddess, was a substantial read and the best Holt I’d read to date. In contrast, Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is a slimmer, quick read that nevertheless shows why the series has become so popular in Norway.

A series of bloody crime scenes appear around Oslo. Rooms with significant amounts of blood are being discovered but with the victims removed from the scene.  The only clue detective Hanne Wilhelmsen has to help her investigation are a series of eight digit numbers that are written in blood on the walls. Hanne and her colleague, police attorney Håkon Sand, discover the digits correspond to the identification numbers of recent immigrants.  Hanne’s focus on the case is interrupted when she is forced to warn the father of a recent rape victim against pursuing his own investigation. However, both father and daughter are shell-shocked from the attack and intent on meting out revenge on the rapist.

Holt is Norway’s former Minister of Justice and her legal experience is what makes these books so interesting to read. There is always a solid judicial aspect to the narrative, as dilemmas and complex issues are tackled head-on. In Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, although the bloodied crime scenes are the focus of the investigation, by far the most moving sections involved the rape victim Kristine. The violence of the attack, her shock and despair afterwards and the impact of the rape on her father are dealt with in a moving manner. The inability of either of them to move on and Hanne’s instinctive sympathy for them both forms the backbone of the story. Once more we see the lines between right and wrong begin to blur.

The development of Hanne as a character, in such a slim book, is sacrificed to the story although we get insights into her conflict as she becomes increasingly unable to hide her female partner, Cecile, from work colleagues. There is, however, a moving section when Hanne asks Cecile what she would do if she, Hanne, was raped. For those of us who know the cynical and damaged Hanne from the much later book 1222, it makes you wonder the trials that the character will be going through over the next few novels.

Overall this was a moving, short read that I’m sure will please Holt’s existing fans. It left you with some interesting questions about the nature of justice and what we might be compelled to do in a similar situation.

Thanks to Corvus for my copy of the book. The translation was by Anne Bruce.

Review: Anne Holt – The Blind Goddess

Norwegian author Anne Holt writes excellent mysteries set in and around Oslo. Like many Scandinavian writers, she suffers from the curse of being translated out of order and it is left to the reader to try and piece together the story of the characters. This is particularly the case with the series featuring Hanne Wilhelmsen who in the excellent 1222 is suffering from a serious disability. Although it is been sold on Amazon as ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen #1’, it is in fact the eighth book in the series and the Hanne we see in The Blind Goddess is a very different character from the later novel.

The book opens with lawyer Karen Borg discovering the dead body of a drug dealer in the street. When a young Dutch student is found covered in blood and charged with the murder he insists on being represented by the woman who found the body. Although not an expert in criminal law, Karen agrees to defend the student although she comes under pressure from the prominent defence lawyer Peter Strup to hand over the case to him. When a shady criminal lawyer, Hans Olsen is found shot days later, Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen and police attorney Håkon Sand are convinced there is a link with the dead drug dealer. However crucial pieces of evidence keep disappearing and it appears that a conspiracy operating high up in the Oslo legal system is anxious to ensure the case remains unsolved.

Although written in 1993, The Blind Goddess had none of the ‘period’ feel you sometimes get with books that are translated long after their original publication. Only in a couple of instances (Karen’s Ford Sierra) were you reminded that this was written before the age of mobile phones and the internet. I thought the mystery element of the book was very well plotted and must have been a strong debut novel for Holt. As you would expect from a first novel, there is plenty of attention given to developing the characters, particularly that of Hanne with her hidden private life and of the developing relationship between Karen and Håkon.

Overall I think this is the strongest Anne Holt book I’ve read and it’s good to hear that they are going to be published now in order. The next in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, Blessed are those that Thirst, is out next year. One slight niggle: the blurb at the back of the book had the wrong name for the dead lawyer – Hansa Larsen instead of Hans E Olsen. Doesn’t anyone check these things?

I bought my copy of the book. Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime and Crime Scraps Review.

The best of January’s reading.

January, a miserable month for us living in the northern hemisphere, was redeemed by some excellent crime fiction reading. I read 10 books for crimepieces and perhaps because there was a stong Scandinavian presence, the common theme seemed to be murders set to the backdrop of freezing winters. However, the highlight of my month was set in a much warmer climate, the Australian Desert. Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland combined sparky writing with a great sense of place and one of the best female detectives around.

The books I read in January were:

1. Death and the Spanish Lady by Carolyn Morwood. (completed as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge).

2. The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

3. The Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner

4. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George

5. Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland

6. V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton (also reviewed for crimesquad.com)

7. The Mask of Glass by Holly Roth

8. The Final Murder by Anne Holt

9. 1222 by Anne Holt

10. Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft

Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting a meme summarizing the crime fiction recommendations for January 2012.

Reviews: Anne Holt – 1222 & The Final Murder

I read 1222 over Christmas when the wind was howling around the Derbyshire hills and I was ensconced in a warm house. It was an ideal winter read as it relates the story of train 601 from Oslo to Bergen that is derailed by a severe snowstorm. Trapped 1222 metres above sea-level, the train’s 269 passengers are forced to abandon their carriages and take refuge in a nearby hotel. The travellers are intrigued by an unseen passenger who is given special treatment and secreted in a separate wing of the hotel, patrolled by armed guards. The next morning, a body is found and the group turn to retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen to help solve the crime. But Hanne, after a shooting at work, is confined to a wheelchair and with a snowstorm increasing in strength and a killer at large, a feeling of helplessness and panic spreads amongst the passengers.

I enjoyed this book mainly for the descriptions of the landscape and snowstorm. Each chapter is headed by a small description of each level of the Beaufort Scale. For example Chapter 1 begins “Beaufort Scale 0. Calm. Wind Speed 0-1 mph. Snowflakes fall vertically, often with a side-to-side motion”. And so on. I liked this little stylistic device which reflected the increasing intensity of the storm and killings in the book. Unfortunately I didn’t think the plot quite lived up to the atmosphere. I think the problem was partly the riddle mysterious stranger being guarded. This could have been quite an interesting plot line, but when it was partly revealed towards the end, I thought the explanation quite lame. I thought the investigation by Hanne quite well plotted but didn’t really identify with the detective and am not rushing to read any more books featuring Hanne.

I found The Final Murder a much more enjoyable read. The plot was good – a killer is targeting famous people in Oslo and leaving behind various disturbing symbols. The book opens with the murder of a talk-show host who is found with her tongue removed from her body and left on her desk, cleaved in two. It’s an interesting “serial killer” plot, and the passages interspersed in the book taking the killer’s point of view were well done and satisfactorily oblique.

I also liked the main detective, Superintendent Adam Stubo, already a grandfather with a new baby of his own. I suspect the fact that I hadn’t read Anne Holt’s earlier book Punishment might have been a slight disadvantage as I think his partner Johanne Vik had already featured in this book. I found it a bit hard to believe that a top policeman happened to have a partner who had just had a baby, who was also a former FBI profiler and now a psychologist. It’s all perfectly possible it’s just without any introduction it seemed a bit far-fetched. But I liked the plotting very much and thought it an excellent read. The ending was a bit frustrating for reasons I can’t say without spoiling the plot but I suppose, as a lawyer and former Minister of Justice, Anne Holt is aware that not all crimes can be resolved neatly.