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.