Review: THE MURDER OF HARRIET KROHN by Karin Fossum

TheMurderOfHarrietKrohnFossumAudioIf I’d been paying attention I probably wouldn’t have downloaded this particular book even though I’m a huge fan of Karin Fossum’s because stories told from the perspective of the killer are not one of my favourite things. But I started listening to Sean Barrett’s delightful narration (I admit I have a bit of a crush) before realising that this was one of those books and by the time I worked that out I was hooked. In an efficiently told (though somewhat confronting) opening set piece Fossum introduces us to our murder victim and her killer and even provides the motivation for the heinous act. Having taking care of in a few pages the things most crime novels require a whole book to resolve, she moves on to the issue of what consequences, if any, the murderer will incur either legally or…cosmically…for want of a better word. Given its unusual focus the book is probably not for everyone but I thought it a terrific read (listen).

Charlo Torp, the murdering anti-hero of the story, is a well drawn character, giving weight to my claim that characters don’t have to be likeable to engage me. He’s not a foaming-at-the-mouth killer (that would have been dull) but rather an ordinary man who has made a mess of his life and chooses the most unpleasant escape route imaginable. But that’s the point of him…you can imagine a real person (hopefully not yourself or anyone you know) doing exactly what he does out of … desperation … narcissism…a lost grip on reality. I think it would be impossible to like Torp and I couldn’t really feel too sorry for him even though his troubles were not all of his own making but I did find myself captivated by his narrative and his ability to convince himself of his good qualities. At one point he even tries to measure his worthiness by awarding points for each good and bad act of his life…a subjective exercise indeed but a fascinating insight into his character.

My favourite part of the novel though is the final third which introduces Fossum’s series hero, Inspector Sejer. In this novel his role is smaller than usual as the traditional investigation is not described for readers, though we become aware that it has been going on off-set as it were. But when Sejer arrives to interview Torp, first quite cordially and then more insistently, we see a master at work. His interview style is very low key but demonstrates a man who understands what makes people – especially the criminals he has dealt with all his working life – really tick.

At the time I thought the ending of the novel was a little abrupt but I can’t now imagine what else there was to say so perhaps that was just a product of my being wrapped up in the excellent narration. Most of the questions posed by the novel are at least partially answered and if the big cosmic question about justice being served is not entirely dealt with that is probably as it should be. I guess Fossum fans won’t need any encouragement to read the novel, but I can see myself recommending this to people who aren’t die hard genre fans too.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator James Anderson
Translator Sean Barrett
Publisher Random House Audio [2014]
ASIN B00MWAZB9Q
Length 7 hours 49 minutes
Format audio
Book Series #7 in the Inspector Sejer series (though released in English completely out of order)
Creative Commons Licence This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: CLOSED FOR WINTER by Jorn Lier Horst

ClosedForWinterHorstJr21310_fCLOSED FOR WINTER opens with a dead body being discovered in the summer cottage of a famous TV presenter. When Police Inspector William Wisting attends the site he is attached and his car stolen. With the corpse being…lost…before an identification can be made and one of their inspectors caught up in the night’s events, police are behind the eightball when beginning their investigation. Is it a case of robbery gone wrong or is the apparent drug connection something they should be tracking down?

I was rather enchanted with the only other book of Jorn Lier Horst’s to have been translated into English so far (DREGS) but am afraid CLOSED FOR WINTER didn’t win me over in quite the same way. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, merely that it doesn’t have that elusive ‘something extra’ that elevates a book from the crowded middle of the pack. I suspect this is partly due to a personal prejudice of mine: I am bored by stories which deal with drugs, drug running, drug criminals and so on. But I also feel like this book had a lot more exposition than it needed, to the point that some of read as if it belonged more to the official reports and press releases I’m sure Horst has produced by the truckload in his capacity as a real-life police investigator than to a work of fiction. It’s not a particularly long book by today’s standards but even so it dragged a bit for me as it got bogged down in a lot of unnecessary, awkward details.

There are things to like about the book though, including the way it explores the nature or motivation for criminality. During the last third of the story it becomes clear there are strong connections between the case and organised gangs working out of Lithuania so Wisting and one of his colleagues travel there to conduct interviews. Though they do indeed discover evidence of the kind of gangs they’ve been looking for they also see – or at least Wisting does – that the criminals are subject to a kind of poverty that simply doesn’t exist in Norway and he is noticeably affected by this. It did my jaded heart good to imagine there are high-ranking police who can still be touched in this way.

CLOSED FOR WINTER is a fairly standard procedural that was entertaining enough to keep reading but something I feel like I’ll forget the details of fairly shortly. The writing is a little too stilted and the aspects that are meant to give the novel interest, such as the dramatic number of dead birds falling from the sky, were too easy to guess at for me to rate this in the top echelon of traditional crime novels.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I reviewed this novel’s predecessor, DREGS, in 2011

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Translator Anne Bruce
Publisher Sandstone Press [this translation 2013, original edition 2011]
ISBN 9781908737496
Length 321 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #7 in the William Wisting series (the second translated to English)

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Review: IN THE DARKNESS by Karin Fossum

This book tells two stories really. The first involves the discovery of the body of a man who has been missing for some months. Because the body is found in a river and due to the delay in finding it Sejer and his colleagues have little in the way of evidence or reliable witness statements to go on but they doggedly pursue the investigation. The second story is that of the person who was responsible for the man’s murder. The fact this culprit is revealed about half-way through the book but does not result in a lessening of suspense is a sign of Fossum’s superior writing talents. In a skilled kind of misdirection she makes the reader forget they now know who committed the crime and that, theoretically at least, there are no more secrets to reveal. Because there is suddenly the more interesting question of ‘why’ to be answered and Fossum does this by exploring the culprit’s past and inner life in an engaging way, ensuring resolution is not entirely comfortable for either Sejer or the reader.

It is due to the vagaries of the publishing industry, particularly with respect to the order in which foreign language series are translated into English, that I read the tenth novel in this series, THE CALLER, earlier this year while this first book of the series,published in its original Norwegian in 1995, has only just been released in English. However I found IN THE DARKNESS to be a very accomplished novel, regardless of the fact it is a début, and I enjoyed comparing the beginning of the series with the most recent work while my ailing memory could remember both. The biggest difference is, I think, that IN THE DARKNESS is more of a traditional police procedural than the latest novel in the series, though I wonder if I’d have noticed this if I’d read more of the intervening titles. But even here Fossum’s interest in and empathy for the people who commit crimes as well as those who solve them is plain to see.

The characters are thoughtfully drawn. Konrad Sejer is somewhat gently introduced as a middle-aged widower with an adult daughter whose son was adopted while she and her husband lived in Africa. The depth of his personality is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that his hobby is parachute jumping but only when the weather conditions are absolutely perfect. This defines a sort of deliberate cautiousness that seems to sneak into his approach to his work too. Although obviously responsible for upholding the law he is shown to have a capacity to see the other side of things and understand, if not condone, the actions led to the crimes committed here.

The culprit too is a nicely rounded character whom we see first as a normal participant in day-to-day life with the same struggles to be a good parent and caring child looking after an elderly father. When this character’s culpability becomes obvious and we are told the series of events which led to the point of murder it becomes much more difficult to see the horrid crime in the purely black and white terms of right and wrong. I’m always impressed when an author can achieve this, almost without me noticing.

In some ways I’m quite happy that I’ve still got quite a few of Fossum’s novels left to read (in completely the wrong order now) because she really is a terrific writer. I enjoy the unpredictable road she takes with her stories and the fact that although she shows an empathy for the perpetrators of crimes she doesn’t condescend to those characters or her readers along the way. And perhaps the thing I like best is that the thoughts and issues raised by this book, like the two others of hers that I’ve read, have continued to play across my mind long after I finished it.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
IN THE DARKNESS has been reviewed at Euro Crime and Petrona and a new to me blog called Finnish and Scandinavian Review (by a Finnish author living in England)

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My rating 4/5
Narrator David Rintoul
Translator James Anderson
Publisher Random House Audiobooks [2012]
ASIN B008K7SOPI
Length 8 hours 49 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the Inspector Sejer series
Source I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: PIERCED by Thomas Enger

Taking place soon after the end of BURNED this second novel from Norwegian journalist Thomas Enger is a welcome addition to the series; managing to continue the good traits noticeable in the first book while controlling the wildness of plot that marred the debut a little for me. PIERCED’s protagonist is Henning Juul, a journalist for an online publication (just like his creator once was) whose only son was killed in a house fire two years earlier. Juul is far from recovered from this trauma, either physically or emotionally. He is contacted by Tore Pulli, a prison inmate who claims to be innocent and is prepared to exchange knowledge of what happened the night of the fire that killed Juul’s son in return for Juul’s investigation into the murder Pulli has been convicted of. Blaming himself for his son’s death Juul cannot refuse to become involved in the hope of learning something about the events surrounding his son’s death.

Juul is a great character; not entirely likeable but totally believable. His struggles with guilt over his son’s death and the physical and mental problems resulting from only just having survived the fire himself are very realistic. But though this is a constant presence in the character’s life Juul does get on with some semblance of a normal life, in particular his work (though this is a bit sad if you are the sort of person who has ever admired journalism as a profession). A key aspect of his character development from the first book is that here his personal relationships, notably with his ex-wife and the journalist she is now in a relationship with, are far more mature and nuanced.

There are other very well drawn characters too. There’s a television cameraman who gets caught up in the case surrounding Tore Pulli in a most terrifying way and whose life spirals out of control rather rapidly as a result. Enger tugs at reader’s emotions with this character’s tribulations but there’s nothing saccharine about the way this is done. I loved the way this thread forced me to ponder what I would do in the given circumstances even though I was a little uncomfortable with my conclusions.

The story in PIERCED is complicated but overall it is more restrained than that of its predecessor and is much more successful at combining the investigative and thriller elements of the plot. The investigation into the murder that  Tore Pulli was convicted of is quite fascinating, involving the shady end of the fitness industry and associated minor celebrities. And the long-running back story of Juul’s son’s death does not overwhelm the book or threaten to become on of those ‘oh we’re back to this again’ devices that feel like the crutch of lazy writers. The reader does get a sense of real development in this thread and it’s definitely a motivation to eagerly await the next instalment.

I think you could read this ably translated novel without having read the first but, even though I thought the plot of BURNED a little outrageous, I’d recommend you start at the beginning before moving onto this book. What are you waiting for?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

PIERCED has been reviewed at Crimepieces and Petrona

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My rating 4/5
Translator Charlotte Barslund
Publisher Faber and Faber [2012]
ISBN 9780571272471
Length 399 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #2 in the Henning Juul series
Source I bought it

Review: THE CALLER by Karin Fossum

I’m almost unwilling to admit that I found THE CALLER unsettling. Not because I’m worried you’ll think I’m a wuss (I am but I don’t care that you know it) but because you’ll think that’s a derogatory thing to say about the book and I don’t mean it to sound that way. Because I think it’s a terrific book, even if extremely sad and…unsettling…in the way it exposes the fragility of the lives we create for ourselves. The subject matter is too dark to for me to say I enjoyed it, but it has gotten under my skin in a way that few books do and I absolutely loved it.

It opens by introducing us to Lily Sundelin who has the perfect life in her small Norwegian town. Her gorgeous baby Margrete is asleep in a pram under a tree in their back yard and she is cooking a favoured meal to share with her much-loved husband when he comes home from work. After their relaxed meal she goes to bring Margrete inside and finds her covered in blood. After rushing to the hospital and fearing the worst they learn that Margrete is fine; the blood was not hers. And while you’d think such an outcome would be cause for rejoicing Fossum takes the story in a less obvious direction, depicting a family that fractures due to the loss of intangible things like security and certainty and the understanding of each person’s role in the family.

We learn early on who is responsible for the prank and this is where one of the book’s many strengths shines through. Because while feeling sympathetic towards the Sundelin family and the prankster’s subsequent victims I felt equally sorry for the perpetrator of the increasingly malicious pranks (which include things like publishing a death notice for an elderly lady who is still alive). He is a teenager who has never known the unquestioning, blind love of a parent that is, or should be, the birthright of every child. His father is unknown, his mother a cruel drunk who abandoned her maternal responsibilities many years ago and while not excusing the boy’s behaviour this situation certainly explains it. Like Konrad Sejer, the inspector assigned to the case, I couldn’t help but wonder how different the boy’s life would have been if he’d ever known the feeling of being loved and protected.

Sejer does not play a huge role in this book although the depiction of an ageing man reflecting on his life, his sadnesses and his joys is thoughtful and drew me into his world. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of the life of Sejer’s much-loved grandson with the life of Johnny, the perpetrator of the vicious pranks, and the way it demonstrated the difference that love can make to lives that start out badly. But the real stars of this book are the various victims of Johnny’s pranks who all feel like very realistic characters to me and their range of reactions to their treatment is fascinating. You might be pleased to know that at least one, a young girl, is not cowed or unduly traumatised by what happens to her which probably says something about the resilience of the young (at least those who are loved and wanted).

THE CALLER is beautifully written (for which at least some of the credit must go to translator K.E. Semmel), full of compelling characters, has a deliciously ambiguous ending and is a superb study of the fragility of life. As Sejer muses towards the end of the novel when one of the pranks results in an unexpected and horrific outcome: What life has in store for some of us. Imagine if we knew.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

THE CALLER has been reviewed at Euro Crime, Petrona and Yet Another Crime Fiction BLog

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My rating 5/5
Translator K.E. Semmel
Publisher Harvill Secker [2011]
ISBN/ASIN 9781846553936
Length 296 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #8 in the Inspector Sejer series to have been translated into English.
Source I borrowed it from the library
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Review: Dregs by Jørn Lier Horst

Dregs is the sixth novel in Jørn Lier Horst’s series featuring Chief Inspector William Wisting who lives and works in Stavern south of Oslo, though annoyingly (for the linguistically challenged like myself) it’s the first to be translated to English. It is a classic police procedural that sees Wisting and his team investigating the appearance of two severed left feet clad in running shoes which wash ashore in separate incidents. The area is not exactly rife with crime so the Police have a reasonably good idea that the feet are probably related to four outstanding missing persons cases on their books. However, they still have a lot of work to do to piece together the case and the feet on their own do not provide much help and the coppers have to rely on good, old-fashioned legwork to get to the bottom of things.

I enjoyed this book very much not least because it often went in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I love that in a plot. Without car chases, gruesomely described violence (I know severed feet sounds bad but it is handled well) or any of the other hallmarks of a certain kind of crime fiction Horst has produced a very clever and readable story that has a number of surprises. Although sometimes hindered by their boss who is a little too keen to discuss cases with the media Wisting and the team do manage make some sense out of the bizarre case by linking it to events from the area’s past history and I enjoyed seeing the police work depicted so credibly. The fact there is a good team and a subtle sense of humour on display added to my enjoyment.

Wisting is a great character and though I would like to read about his earlier exploits (hint hint publishers) I thought the book did a good job of presenting him.There’s enough of his background so that new readers are not left floundering but not so much that those familiar with the series would be bored. What I liked about Wisting is that although he has had some tragedy in his life (he is a widower for example) it has not left him the dysfunctional wreck common to crime fiction. He’s in a new relationship with a woman in the town and he manages to maintain a good relationship with his daughter. He doesn’t think much of her current job interviewing convicted murderers or her boyfriend (who has been in prison twice) but he refrains from getting on her case about these things which is undoubtedly the hardest but most sensible thing to do in the situation. On the other hand Wisting has his head in the sand a bit about his own health but this is such a realistic trait that I thought it added very well to his overall character.

I also liked the way the author gently but intelligently explored social themes. Probably the most interesting of these for me was the notion of imprisonment as punishment being an ineffective method for dealing with murderers. Horst uses the character of Line, Wisting’s daughter who is a journalist, to tease this issue out in a series of interviews with convicted murderers who have been released from prison. It was a somewhat surprisingly thoughtful and balanced look at the issue, especially considering Horst was a policeman himself and could be expected to perhaps take a harder line on such an issue.

Dregs was very readable to me which I always attribute to excellent translation, in this case by Anne Bruce, as well as good original writing. I will look forward to reading more of this series though whether that proves to me earlier books or later ones remains to be seen.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Based on the fact there are at least two other recent crime novels featuring severed feet I’m clearly not the only person who has been following the bizarre news stories from Canada (and more recently the US) about unattached feet washing up on various shores. Sometimes it’s easy to see where novelists get their inspiration :)

Dregs has been reviewed (to pretty universal acclaim) at Crime Fiction Lover, Crime Segments, Crimepieces,  International Noir Fiction, Nordic Bookblog (I am so jealous that Peter has read the earlier books in their native language) and Petrona

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My rating 4.5/5
Translator Anne Bruce
Publisher Sandstone Press [2011]
ISBN 9781905207671
Length 310 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #6 in the William Wisting series (but the first available in English)
Source A gift from my fairy godmother
Creative Commons Licence
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Review: Headhunters by Jo Nesbo

After a hiccup (I had discarded the book once but you convinced me to give it another go) I thoroughly enjoyed Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast and bought the rest of the series before I’d even finished the first book. I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them yet because every time I reach for the second book in the series I see its 600+ pages and decide to read something else. Something shorter. But a standalone novel is a whole different box of bananas and shorter than most of the Harry Hole novels so I was keen to read this one. Sadly for me it turned out not to be my cup of tea.

It is the story of Norwegian executive recruitment specialist Roger Brown (I never did discover how he ended up with such a thoroughly English name though concede this is probably my fault…my mind did wander on occasion) whose life spirals out of control in an increasingly gruesome way. Roger has a great job and a beautiful wife who he professes to adore but he feels he needs more money to fund his lifestyle so he has second job as an art thief. In a way, though not the way you might expect, it is this second job that gets him into trouble and sets up the main plot thread of the novel in which Roger matches wits with Clas Greve, a candidate for a top CEO job who ultimately becomes Roger’s arch enemy. The two play a game of cat and mouse across the Norwegian countryside and leave the landscape littered with bodies.

This book didn’t really tick any of the boxes on the list of things I look for in a good thriller and it had quite a few of the things that make me turn off (including scenes featuring poo). I found the characters flat and uninteresting which is probably the biggest problem I can have with a thriller. If characters are to be unlikeable I want them to be really unlikeable; the kind of people whose painful demise I guiltily yet eagerly anticipate. Here I just thought the two main characters were dull and I didn’t much care which of them lived, died or got the girl. The main woman was a non event; being defined only by her relationship to the men in the story and having a laughingly unbelievable relationship to her husband.

The story was a bit better than the characters but its cartoonish quality resulted in me not really being able to care about its many, increasingly implausible twists and I found myself picking apart relatively minor things like dodgy physics and technology. In a book I am enjoying I let that kind of thing was over me but here I wasn’t really engaged by the story and so the things stood out more (I can’t go into more detail without spoiling). Another thing which leapt out rather disconcertingly was the clunky product placements for brands of fridge, beer, furniture, clothing and so on. I go to some lengths to avoid being advertised at constantly so it really annoys me when it happens as part of a narrative. For me the ending to the book lost it half a star on my personal rating scale, seeming to lose the guts to be a tale of true noir right at the crucial moment and having a very clunky denouement.

I have something of a soft spot for high class thieves (blame my mother’s yen for Cary Grant which resulted in me watching To Catch a Thief dozens of times as a kid) so I was probably predisposed to liking this novel but it was not to be. To me it felt like a loosely connected series of vignettes in which bad stuff happened to not very nice people (and one poor dog) and not a lot in the way of thrills. As always alternative opinions are available and you shouldn’t just take my word for it.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Headhunters has received more positive reviews at A Common ReaderNordic Bookblog Petrona

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My rating 2/5
Narrator Sean Barrett
Publisher Random House Audiobooks [2010]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 7 hours 50 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it

This post is published at http://reactionstoreading.com if you are seeing it at another site then it has been stolen and/or used entirely without permission.

Review: Burned by Thomas Enger

On his first day back at work after nearly 2 years’ absence Henning Juul, a reporter for an online news outlet, is immediately thrown into a major investigation. A young female film student has been found (by the ubiquitous dog walker) stoned to death inside a tent in an Oslo public park. Due to the manner of death and the specific body mutilations, and the fact the girl’s boyfriend is Muslim, the official investigation is quick to focus on a possible religious angle to the crime but Henning feels there is more at play. However he’s not even sure he can function as a journalist after so long out of the game, and takes a while to find his feet.

There was much to like about this book though, for me, the plot was a bit of a let down. Starting with the positives though the characters are all first rate; even the ones I hated were entirely believable and well drawn. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Juul is a damaged man, both physically and psychologically, since losing his young son Jonas in a house fire two years previously. The guilt, the obsessive changing of smoke alarm batteries, the disconnection from the people around him, the desperation to find something ‘normal’ to cling on to, all help to build up a very credible picture of Henning Juul. What I liked most is that he is not an entirely sympathetic character and I suspect this must have been harder to tease out than someone who engenders nothing but compassion in the reader.

The character I particularly despised was Detective Inspector Bjarne Brogleand who is one of the two police investigators on the case and he spends his every waking moment fantasizing about his partner, a female cop. The language he uses in his thoughts is crude and disgusting and the thoughts themselves made me angry more than once but it is a realistic depiction of the kind of man who sees women as nothing more than sexual objects. Credible though he undoubtedly is I’m really not going to line up to spend any more time in his repugnant company.

The story started well, incorporating its gruesome but not gratuitous opening scene into a broader narrative that seemed to be heading in an interesting direction. It also gave a great depiction of modern journalism where online news has an insatiable need for new content to the point that veracity and accuracy are less important than having something new a few minutes before the competitors have it. The discussion of the disparity between what people say they want to read and what online outlets know (from click-through data) people actually read was particularly poignant given recent events in the UK media. But about half-way through the book I really did lose interest in what I found to be an increasingly disjointed and, at times, downright nonsensical, plot. I can’t say too much without giving spoilers but there was quite a bit that didn’t ring true for me. Things like Juul having a highly placed ‘Deep Throat’ style informant (who never slept and knew absolutely everything going on in official circles) and the triple-twist to the crime’s resolution just felt a bit too contrived for me. In the end it felt like a few too many ideas had been thrown in at the last minute and one or two could have been saved for a future outing. I did like the loose-end feel to the story though (which is not one for those obsessed with justice being done).

I didn’t deliberately pluck this book from my TBR pile in light of recent events in Norway but once I had decided to read it I hoped it might shed some light on its setting. In that I was for the most part disappointed, though perhaps learning that Norwegian society is very similar to my own is the lesson I’m meant to learn from my global reading. Overall I thought this a solid debut novel, particularly with respect to its characters, with a nicely unnoticeable translation by Charlotte Barslund (I tend only to think about translations when the language doesn’t feel right and that never happened here). The plotting will need to improve though for the series to deliver on the promise it shows here.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Burned is Thomas Enger’s first crime novel and it has been reviewed at Nordic Bookblog

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Translator Charlotte Barslund
Publisher Faber and Faber [2011]
ISBN 9780571275175
Length 399 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Henning Juul series
Source I bought it

Review: 1222 by Anne Holt

My fifth book for the 2011 Nordic Reading Challenge is my first stop in Norway.

The book takes its title from the height above sea level (in metres) at which events unfold. During the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history a train derails and 269 of its passengers are taken to a nearby mountain-top hotel where they will wait out the storm in relative comfort. During the first night however one of the passengers is murdered and it falls to a couple of hotel staff and one of the passengers, former policewoman Hanne Wilhelmesen, to investigate.

I admit to being a bit of a sucker for the ‘country house’ mysteries of which this is a variation. Over the years I’ve read the same basic story several dozen times because I like seeing how different authors try to bring something new to the much-used story arc, with varying degrees of success. I’d put this addition to the tradition at a little above average, with much to recommend it and a couple of things that annoyed me intensely.

The positives first though, which included the characters. Hanne is very enjoyable, though I could be biased because I recognise my curmudgeonly side in her aversion to humanity in general. She is wheelchair bound since being shot on duty some years earlier and has withdrawn to a very small circle for her human contact (essentially her partner and their daughter) so dealing with the large group of passengers is something of a struggle for her. The fact that many of them want to help her (carry her, push her wheelchair etc) doesn’t improve matters as she has a real aversion to this. Although reluctant to become involved in the investigation and related matters that subsequently unfold, she does eventually take an interest in seeing whether or not she still has the skills to do the job that was taken away from her.

The rest of the characters are more of a collective palette than individuals, though from this outsider’s perspective they provided quite a fascinating look at Norwegian society. Even Hanne at one point comments on this as she tries to work out whether or not they have a statistically representative sample of the country’s population. There’s a group of priests, s girl’s sports team, a group of doctors who’d been going to attend a conference (including one who is meant I think to be an exotic little person but whom I found annoying) and assorted others. The way they react to various events that occur over the time they are trapped together provides an interesting sociological backdrop to the book.

The annoying things about the book mainly related to the uneven plotting. There’s a subplot involving people who had been travelling on the train in a locked carriage (rumoured to be the Royal carriage) and are now ensconced on the top floor of the hotel and have no interaction at all with the larger group. This thread balloons out to become an utterly ludicrous bit of nonsense that was entirely pointless and unnecessary and its inclusion made me cranky.

1222 is an enjoyable take on the classic whodunnit which nicely captures its stormy, isolated setting. For me the sensational (i.e. silly) elements of the plot detracted a little from my overall enjoyment but it’s still a recommended read.

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1222 has been reviewed at Crime Always Pays and Euro Crime

I have reviewed another of Anne Holt’s books, What is Mine

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My rating 3/5
Translator Marlaine Delargy
Publisher Corvus [this translation 2010, original edition 2007]
ISBN 9781848878105
Length 352 pages
Format mass market paperback
Book Series standalone?
Source I bought it

Review: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø

My final book for Amy’s Scandinavian Reading Challenge is Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, set in Norway, which I had abandoned at around page 80 a year or so ago and fairly reluctantly started again only because you all told me to.

After nearly causing an international incident during a visit to Norway by the US President Detective Harry Hole is transferred within the police force and is charged with the surveillance of Nazi sympathisers. In what starts out as a barely related investigation he discovers that a very particular kind of weapon, one which would only be used for an assassination, is in the process of being smuggled into the country. What he has to uncover, before something disastrous happens, is what connection there is to a group of men who fought with the German occupying army during the second world war.

My initial lack of interest reading The Redbreast was due to its flashback passages to the battlefields of WW2. With regards to my entertainment war is one of two subjects* that is virtually guaranteed to make me zone out like a switch in my brain has been turned and all I hear and see is white noise (blame bad history teaches in my adolescence). However I made an extra effort to pay attention to The Redbreast this time and, though I still could have done without quite so many flashbacks, I did find the focus on the experiences of those who chose the wrong side during the war and were later treated as traitors quite fascinating and not something I’ve come across before (or at least not when I’ve been paying attention).

But the book has much besides its post-war musings to recommend it. First and foremost there is Harry Hole. He is funny, smart, occasionally insolent, socially inept and has a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve. At first I liked him but his realistic and truly touching reaction to a particularly horrible event about half-way through the story made me love him to bits. I rarely think about wanting to meet fictional people (because, ya know, it’s impossible) but I’d happily engage in a bit of black magic if it meant I could have a chat with Harry. And perhaps give him a hug. It might give you some sense of just how much I adored him that I immediately purchased all the other books in which he appears even though I won’t read any of them for a while just so I could have them nearby.

There are other equally well-drawn characters in the book, though many of them are the kind of repugnant individuals whose eyes you want to scratch out (or is that just me?). My favourite one to hate was Bernt Brandhaug, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who likes to blackmail women, including Harry’s possible love interest, to sleep with him. Though despicable he is entirely too credible, as is the neo-Nazi youth Sverre Olsen, whose blaming of foreigners for the problems in his life rather than taking responsibility for his own inadequacies has a sadly familiar ring to it. This dark side of human nature is nicely balanced though by great characters like Harry’s colleagues Ellen, a feisty young woman who continues to help Harry after he is transferred to a different section, and Halvorsen a relatively new officer who is drawn into Harry’s investigation somewhat reluctantly.

The plot is very complicated, probably a little too much to be honest as there were one or two twists that didn’t seem to add much except confusion, but overall it hangs together well. The flashbacks are incorporated well (it’s not Nesbø’s fault I get bored at the first hint of wartime activity) and the mostly short chapters headed by dates help to provide much needed structure for the multi-threaded story which plays out over the course of many months. I’m sure this is all helped along by a great translation which makes the book flow very easily and naturally.

I’m still not convinced The Redbreast needed to be a hand-cramping 618 pages long, it was far too dense and detailed in parts, and there were some passages that felt muddled, like the incorporation of an enormously complicated psychological condition in an overly simplistic and not terribly realistic way. But overall these points were far outweighed by the excellent characters and well-structured narrative. I’m thrilled I have four more (so far) opportunities to catch up with Harry sometime soon.

The Redbreast has also been reviewed at Euro Crime (by Karen), Euro Crime (by Norman) and Material Witness

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My rating 4.5/5 (it’s probably a 4 but I’m giving Harry a half a point all of his own because I can)
Translator Don Bartlett
Publisher Vintage Books
ISBN 9780099478546
Length 618 pages
Format mass market paperback
Source My collection

In the never-ending confusion over publishing order of translated books The Redbreast is the first of the Harry Hole stories available in English (there are two earlier novels not yet available as far as I can tell) but it was not the first to be translated into English so you can’t get the series order by relying on publication dates. The listing on Fantastic Fiction appears to be in the correct series order.

* the other subject that puts me to sleep is gangsters/mafia.