A serial killer is on the loose, abducting and murdering children in a way that confounds the police, before returning the child's body to the mother with a desperately cruel note: You Got What You Deserved.
The first of the Johanne Vik & Adam Stubø books, PUNISHMENT, is now available in paperback locally. An excellent crime fiction series by Norwegian author Anne Holt, this has been a series that could be (well had to be) read out of order. Now there's something compelling about being able to go back to the start, and work your way through.
Originally read by this reviewer back in 2007, when it was newly translated, PUNISHMENT is the novel that introduces an unusual investigative (ultimately personal) coupling of academic and former FBI profiler Johanne Vik and Detective Inspector Adam Stubø of the Oslo police.
As summarised in my earlier review:
"When 9 year old Emilie goes missing her father is worried but not frantic. She'd done this once before just after her mother died. This time, they don't find her. When a little boy disappears and ultimately is returned to his parents; dead, no obvious cause of death, and a handwritten note: You Got What You Deserved; Oslo starts to worry.
Police Superintendent Adam Stubø, working the case, turns to former FBI profiler Johanne Vik for help. Johanne is already looking into the conviction of Aksel Seier for the rape and murder of a young child many years ago. An old lady really wants to know if Seier was guilty or not. Johanne is not confident that she can help Adam, but he is increasingly desperate for any sort of lead that the Police can get. He and his team make very little progress and they soon have 3 abducted children, two dead and a chance that Emilie is still alive."
The focus of this novel moves between Oslo and that current case of a child killer, and the US and the cold case of Aksel Seier. The two central characters are each, in their own way, obsessed with their respective cases, and the complications that they bring. An odd message from the killer in the current day case, and a dying woman who wants the truth to be found before it's too late for her - and a man who has lived with the consequences of a child killing many years before. Woven into the story of these children and all of their dreadful deaths and the consequences of them, is the story of Vik's own daughter, who is intellectually disabled, and Stubø's own loss of his wife and daughter. Whilst there's no romantic attachment in this initial book, readers of subsequent novels in the series will know that something builds between these two main characters, as their professional involvement increases.
My main quibble at the time still stands - there is a tendency to concentrate on building the central characters quite a bit in PUNISHMENT. If we'd have been lucky enough to read this series translated in order then right from the start it was obvious there were plans for these two, and this initial novel is laying a lot of ground work. Which is a minor quibble in the overall scheme of things - possibly only noticeable because of the round about way in which we got a chance to read the series. Vik and Stubø are a great pairing though, and re-reading PUNISHMENT was an opportunity to remind myself of what a great series this is.
Review - I'm Travelling Alone, Samuel Bjørk
A six year old girl is found hanging from a tree. Around her neck is an airline tag which says 'I'm travelling alone'.
A special homicide unit in Oslo is re-opened with veteran police investigator Holger Munch at the helm. He must convince his erstwhile partner, Mia Kruger, an extremely talented but eccentric investigator, to leave the solitary island to which she has retreated in order to take her own life.
'Watch out Jo Nesbo!' is printed in a bright red circle on the front of I'M TRAVELLING ALONE. It seemed like a rather brave claim to be making before starting this book, and bordering on rash having now finished it.
The characterisations are reasonably good. There's a partnership of the highly predictable kind with the sane, placid veteran Holger Munch steering a team of investigators trying to work out who is responsible for the shocking death of very young girls. At his side, by his choice despite her objections, his colleague Mia Krüger is damaged and difficult, tortured by past deaths and her background. These two have a working relationship that confounds some of their colleagues, but then most of them don't understand the history between these two.
The plot, on the other hand, is slightly less predictable in that somebody is killing young girls. Dressing them in doll's clothes, leaving them with the tag 'I'm travelling alone' attached to them somehow. Knowing that there is a number carved into the first victim's fingernail obviously indicates that there will be more victims, but it's not until the investigation tracks down the source of the doll's clothes that they discover exactly what they are dealing with.
The opening salvo in this book instantly grabs, but things do slow down pretty quickly. Partly because of a lot of heavy lifting required in getting a couple of very complicated back-stories fleshed out, and partly because there's a lot of details in the investigation, and a lot of descriptive passages, long conversations and journey's into those back-stories at what is frequently an inopportune moment in terms of plot pace. Needless to say reader's with a preference for action over exposition are likely to get a little frustrated, whilst those looking for something wordier and more descriptive might be more at home here.
Plot advancement is handled reasonably fairly and there are plenty of twists and turns, although readers paying close attention will be able to make some relatively accurate assumptions about a lot of elements, although perhaps not the entire solution.
Despite some reservations, I'M TRAVELLING ALONE is a debut which is building a couple of central characters into a good, standard styling of a broken pair of dedicated detectives, in a series which part police procedural, part noir and part exploration of the human condition. Hopefully once the character setup is completed, future outings will be able to concentrate more on plot and pace.
Review - The Girl in Green, Derek B. Miller
1991. Near Checkpoint Zulu, one hundred miles from the Kuwaiti border, Thomas Benton meets Arwood Hobbes. Benton is a British journalist who reports from war zones, in part to avoid his lacklustre marriage and a daughter he loves but cannot connect with; Hobbes is a midwestern American private who might be an insufferable ignoramus, or might be a brilliant lunatic with a death wish -- it's hard to tell.
There have been plenty of thrillers in recent years that use the conflicts in the Middle East as a setting and jumping off point. And for thriller authors there is plenty of material to draw on: a volatile situation, plenty of excuse for violence and action and often a grey moral zone in which characters operate. The Girl in Green at first blush, seems like one of these. But while it cloaks itself in the trappings of a thriller, author Derek B. Miller has serious concerns.
The Girl in Green opens in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. An American company is set up at Checkpoint Zulu, on the outskirts of an Iraqi town and close to the Kuwaiti border. When Saddam’s death squads arrive to slaughter the inhabitants of the nearby town in order to quell a nascent uprising, the troops are ordered not to interfere. This approach, and its consequences, will haunt two men, one a young soldier, Arwood Hobbes, and the other an English journalist, Thomas Benton, so that over twenty years later they are still trying to make amends.
The bulk of the novel is set in 2013 on the Iraq/Syria border. The security situation in Syria is deteriorating, and streams of refugees are coming into Iraq where things are not much better and the world is starting to see the rise of extremist groups like ISIL. Hobbes brings a now ageing Benton back into this zone to hunt for a ghost – a girl in a green dress who looks like the girl they saw killed back in 1991. Being Northern Iraq in 2013, nothing goes according to plan.
Miller has an engaging, almost surreal style in his approach to this material. The first section of the book has both direct oblique references to children’s classics such as Doctor Seuss and Winnie-the-Pooh. At one point Benton’s daughter tours the refugee camp that he has come to through skype as a disembodied head on a stick. Hobbes himself adopts a surreal approach in the way he talks and approaches situations. These aspects of the narrative help to make the painful more palatable. Because there is plenty of pain and desperation in the world that Miller explores.
The Girl in Green takes what is clearly Miller’s life work (including his and others’ PhD theses) and explores the issues using some thriller conventions. It exposes the role of the West in misunderstanding and fuelling the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and examines the influence and limitations of the aid agencies, desperately trying to salvage something from the situation. From 1991, when the American forces stood back and watched Saddam’s forces massacre their own civilians, to the present day where the world stands by as refugee camps grow, groups like ISIL are flourishing and local people need to battle for or flee their homes in places like Mosul.
The book was written and firmly set in 2013. Miller claims in his Acknowledgements that it was not written to chase headlines: it preceded them. But even he admits that he underestimated the rise of groups like ISIL. That Miller manages to convey a complex situation through characters that readers care about and in a way that entertains as it informs is a credit to him. The Girl in Green is not only a page turner, it is an important novel that tries to convey not only the drivers of the headlines but also the situation that remains when the news cycle moves on.
Review - The Snowman, Jo Nesbø
Oslo in November. The first snow of the season has fallen. A boy named Jonas wakes in the night to find his mother gone. Out his window, in the cold moonlight, he sees the snowman that inexplicably appeared in the yard earlier in the day. Around its neck is his mother’s pink scarf.
Brief commentary, rather than a full review.
Read for our f2f bookclub, every book by Jo Nesbø reminds you to read the rest of the series.
It's partially the way that the balance between atmosphere, plot and character is maintained so elegantly. It's partially the way that Harry Hole might be an archetypal loner, but he's not with out a sense of humour, and profound confusion. It's also to do with the manner in which the plots are so cleverly constructed, even if we are dealing with yet another serial killer.
Needless to say everything adds up to a small amount of kicking myself over how far behind I am with this series.
Review - Dead Joker, Anne Holt
The gripping fifth instalment of the bestselling Hanne Wilhelmsen series: the edgy detective investigates a brutal series of murders while dealing with tragedy closer to home.
Thank goodness the earlier books in this series are now available, because understanding Hanne Wilhelmsen requires back story. Especially now as it's hard to avoid a sneaking suspicion that there's just a little bit of her in Saga Norén. Maybe only a little, but still bells are ringing.
A classic slow burning Scandinavian thriller with some balance between the personal and the professional, there is a lot of back story in DEAD JOKER. Which fans of this series may appreciate, whilst some readers might find it just creates a lot of pages. Personally, this reader loved the chance to fill in so much of what makes Wilhelmsen tick, where she struggles, and the colleagues she's closest to - including the wonderful Billy T. Everybody really needs a friend like Billy T, although he might sometimes wonder why he has a friend like Wilhelmsen.
The crimes and investigations at the centre of DEAD JOKER involve a couple of horrific, violent events, particularly in the case of Halvorsrud's wife, where he has been an enforced witness to his wife's awful death. For the longest time the investigation team struggles to find any connections between the two killings, or to explain how it is that their chief suspect has a very good alibi (any more on that would be way too much of a spoiler).
Combine the hefty personal components with some interesting sidelines into the workings of the Norwegian justice system and DEAD JOKER obviously isn't supposed to be a thriller, or a rapid, superficial read. All the book's in this series I've been fortunate enough to read thus far require commitment, and concentration. They aren't trying to be just entertaining, they are deep, introspective, thoughtful and often confrontational. They are built around real characters for whom life often goes pear-shaped (and that's not just the victims). And they are absolutely fascinating and worth every minute of your reading time.
Review - The Lion's Mouth, Anne Holt
From the internationally bestselling author of 1222, called the “godmother of modern Norwegian crime” by Jo Nesbø, the next book in the Edgar Award–nominated mystery series: Hanne Wilhelmsen is on the case when someone murders the prime minister of Norway.
Less than six months after taking office, the Norwegian Prime Minister is found dead. She has been shot in the head. But was it a politically motivated assassination or personal revenge?
The Hanne Wilhelmsen series from Norwegian author Anne Holt is fabulous, even if it is being translated out of sequence. Which means in THE LION'S MOUTH, Wilhelmsen, who doesn't make an appearance until later in the novel and is not the central investigator anyway, is also walking around. In the novels already made available to many of us she's in a wheelchair permanently. Allowing for the slight confusion that could cause, these books work well as you can, worse comes to worse, approach them as standalones if necessary, although obviously character introduction and development always works better when you start at the beginning.
The main protagonist of this book, Billy T is a slightly unusual Norwegian policeman, what with his complicated personal life, skinhead / punk style looks and dress sense, a love of Opera and his sons. He's also one of the very few cops (and people for that matter) who share affection and respect with Wilhelmsen. When she eventually does make an appearance in the novel - having moved to the US with her partner, she finds herself staying with Billy T, and it's obvious that these two outsiders are both good friends, and like minded investigators.
Which is just as well as the plot here is complicated without being complex. The locked room assassination of the Norwegian Prime Minister means that motive becomes particularly important, as method is not immediately obvious. Whether or not her shooting is politically motivated and even then from within her own ranks, or those opposed is not straightforward as there are a number of other complications. It's particularly sobering that this novel, originally published in 1997, also expands on the possibility of a neo-Nazi plot to murder leading figures in Norway. Other complications are more personal and much closer to home.
Where the plot has particular credence though is in the background, infighting and intrigue occurring within political circles. Given that Holt has, in the past, held the position of Minister for Justice and for this and one of her other earlier novels, credit is shared with former State Secretary Berit Reiss-Anderson, it would seem reasonable to assume that these aspects are written from a position of both knowledge and experience.
That doesn't however, overwhelm in terms of motive, and the background of the Prime Minister and her family is trawled through, as is that of her childhood friend, Supreme Court Judge Benjamin Grinde. Aside from him being the last known person to visit the Prime Minister's Office before she was killed, his position as Chair of a Commission looking into a the increase of young baby deaths around 1965 also has implications for them all.
Holt is not afraid to write strong characters with unpleasant edges that aren't sanded down and don't apologise for what they are. Here she's combined them into a plot that looks at the rights and wrongs of society and the possible implications of power, corruption and nepotism. All of which made for a really engaging read.
Review - THE DROWNED BOY, Karin Fossum
Carmen and Nicolai failed to resuscitate their son, Tommy, after finding him floating in their backyard pond. When Inspector Skarre arrives on the scene, Carmen reports that Tommy, a healthy toddler with Down syndrome, wandered into the garden while Nicolai was working in the basement and she was cleaning the house. Skarre senses something is off with Carmen’s story and consults his trusted colleague, the famed Inspector Sejer. An autopsy reveals Tommy’s lungs to be full of soap.
The 11th Inspector Sejer novel from Karin Fossum, specialising again in the why of a crime. Why in this instance is a series of very big questions. Why did a young toddler end up dead in a pond near his house? Why did nobody think that secure fencing would be necessary for any child that age so close to water? Why is it particularly noteworthy that Tommy is a healthy boy, who happens to have Down's Syndrome? Why is his mother behaving so weirdly, and more to the point is she a spoilt princess or a bit odd? Why do Sejer and Skarre think there's something odd about this death and what can they do about that suspicion with very little evidence?
Fossum often tackles difficult subjects and this is not the first time she's put characters with Down's Syndrome in the forefront of consideration. Whilst she uses this as a way of exploring reactions and expectations it's not disrespectful, opportunistic or uninformed, but it is pointed and thought-provoking. Even more chillingly in THE DROWNED BOY as the parents of young Tommy, Carmen and Nicolai, are very young. The reader is left wondering if they are too young to be parents at all, let alone to a disabled child, or has age less to do with it than just being dysfunctional people. Certainly Carmen seems way too narcissistic to possibly care for anybody but herself. Nicolai on the other hand seems brittle, young, overwhelmed and despite trying to parent, ineffectual and ephemeral.
In contrast to this young couple, and her rather controlling, domineering father, Sejer is the epitome of calm, kind and thoughtful. Struggling with the need to address a health condition of his own, there's something about the reactions to Tommy's death that worries him from the start. In his normal manner he doesn't take those concerns up front to the possible suspects, instead gently digs away, prodding and searching for an explanation.
Readers who are passionately addicted to investigation and closure in their crime fiction may find Fossum's books tough reading. Because they look deep into the human psyche, they aren't about the how or even necessarily the who, although the truth is eventually revealed, as are some further shocks and sad outcomes. Not that the reveal is necessarily because of just good investigative techniques, but rather the way that people react to pressure and the spotlight.
Why would a young Down's Syndrome boy drown, naked in a pond near his home on a hot summer's day and how will his short life and that death affect those around him? There's no question that anybody is going to get away with anything in THE DROWNED BOY, but the why remains the focus, and all the more heart-rendering as a result.
Review - THE SON, Jo Nesbo
Sonny is a model prisoner.
He listens to the confessions of other inmates at Oslo jail, and absolves them of their sins. Some people even whisper that Sonny is serving time for someone else: that he doesn't just listen, he confesses to their crimes.
Inspector Simon Kefas is a dedicated police officer.
Simon has worked for the Oslo police force for years. He's just been assigned a new murder investigation and a new partner, all on the same day.
Both of them knew Sonny's father.
The second book I've read this year with a break out of jail plotline, which means nothing except in my mind. In THE SON, Sonny is a heroin addict, long term prisoner who escapes and goes on a retribution trail on behalf of his father. Simon Kefas is a police officer and husband haunted by his wife's infirmity. He's also the best friend of Sonny's father and the man most likely to see some connections in what seems like a series of unrelated murders.
There's no doubt whatsoever that readers are going to have to accept that a seemingly hopelessly addicted to heroin man, somebody who has been inside for 12 years, can somehow fathom a way to escape, enact that escape, and then deal with a much changed world on the outside whilst quite effectively hunting down and killing a range of people. On the one hand it makes sense as there's something supremely powerful about Sonny, and on the other hand there is possibly a dinging sort of a "what the" noise at the back of the head. There's also something about him that draws people to him - in jail he's a confessor for other prisoners. Out of jail there's something about him that even makes a hardened manager of a drug user safe haven trust him, fall for him. Change her life for him.
Certainly THE SON is testament to the authorship of Jo Nesbo. He writes great, strong, interesting and engaging characters. He puts them into strong and believable plots and then he stirs things up a lot. Whilst his main interest does appear to be the question of what a damaged human being can achieve (you'll probably recognise some of this if your a fan of his Harry Hole series), but he does that with a sympathetic touch. As always from Jo Nesbo, dark, introspective, thoughtful and fascinating.
Review - THE MURDER OF HARRIET KROHN, Karin Fossum
Charlo Torp has problems. He's grieving for his late wife, he's lost his job, and gambling debts have alienated him from his teenage daughter. Desperate, his solution is to rob an elderly woman of her money and silverware. But Harriet Krohn fights back, and Charlo loses control.
Wracked with guilt, Charlo attempts to rebuild his life. But the police are catching up with him, and Inspector Konrad Sejer has never lost a case yet.
The preoccupation for Scandinavian crime fiction of many readers is sometimes questioned. One response is to get people to read Karin Fossum's Inspector Konrad Sejer series. Within the one series, Fossum is able to shift the perspective, analyse the reasons why, explore the outcomes and long-term effects of crime, and play with accepted perceptions of clear cut resolutions. In THE MURDER OF HARRIET KROHN, whilst still part of the Sejer series, she's tipped the perspective completely - this is not a whodunnit, or even necessarily a whydunnit, but a how do you live with what you've just done.
There's absolutely no doubt from the opening set up of this book who Charlo Torp is, what a self-inflicted mess he's made of his life, and what his solution to the problem is. It's quite a chilling portrayal. The matter-of-fact way in which Torp sets out to murder Harriet Krohn and his initial reactions post the crime.
It would be an easy thing to have him remain ambivalent, self-justifying. Comfortable that his decision is what was required to sort out his own life and his relationship with his daughter. Certainly post his crime, and as a result of the money and possessions he steals, his life takes a turn for the better. He's able to reconnect with his daughter, he can provide her with the one thing she longs for more than anything else. But somewhere in the middle of all that happy ever after there's something more than just the pressure he's feeling from Inspector Sejer's investigation.
The investigation does take a back seat in this book, but fans of crime fiction that's all about the "chase" would be doing themselves a disservice by missing THE MURDER HARRIET KROHN. This is a carefully laid out, conservatively presented, seeringly understated, big dose of what goes around, comes around. The frightening thing is how blithely ignorant Torp is of what's happening, how his choices impact other people, and what he could have done differently. Until it's way too late.
BLIND GODDESS - Anne Holt
A small-time drug dealer is found battered to death on the outskirts of the Norwegian capital, Oslo. A young Dutchman, walking aimlessly in central Oslo covered in blood, is taken into custody but refuses to talk. When he is informed that the woman who discovered the body, Karen Borg, is a lawyer, he demands her as his defender, although her specialty is civil, not criminal, law. A couple of days later, Hansa Larsen, a lawyer of the shadiest kind, is found shot to death. Soon police officers Håkon Sand and Hanne Wilhelmsen establish a link between the two killings.
The Hanne Wilhelmsen series from Norwegian author Anne Holt is another one of those Scandinavian series that have been translated completely out of order. For reasons which, as usual, escape me completely. So <insert standard whinge about how profoundly annoying that is>, and onto BLIND GODDESS which is the book that started the whole thing off.
It would be bad enough to discover a battered body when jogging in the morning, but you'd doubt lawyer Karen Borg would also have been expecting to be called in as defence counsel for the Dutchman who is found wandering, dazed, covered in the victim's blood. Not only is Borg a witness, she's never heard of her new client, and she's not a criminal lawyer. For some reason the suspect will talk to nobody else.
What connection there is between a seeming drug deal gone wrong and the shooting death of a shady lawyer a few days later is equally unclear. Just to complicate the issue even more the Police Attorney assigned to the case is an old friend, would-be suitor of Karen Borg's who has partnered with Hanne Wilhelmsen to solve the crime. Wilhelmsen's motivation as always is to be a good cop, his is slightly less clear.
Needless to say this is a complex, enthralling plot which has all the elements you want for high intrigue. There's mysterious numeric codes, there's questions to be answered in both the legal and policing hierarchy, and there's the complications of personal connection weaving around all of the characters.
Even though this is a very good plot, the bit that really grabbed my attention is the building of the characters. If you've been suckered into reading the two books out of order, this is a very different Wilhelmsen from that in 1222. She's an interesting person, a dedicated and serious policewoman who will turn rule breaker when rules need to be broken. Likewise the Police Attorney, Hakon Sand plays an important part in the story, and the way he tries to balance his attraction for Borg with the responsibilities of the investigation is actually quite touching.
I was one of the people that liked the first translated book (actually the eighth in the series) 1222, although I will admit there's a thread within that book, leading to one of the more ridiculous conclusions I've ever come across (I just ignored all of that completely!). But I always did wonder about Wilhelmsen's background. No is the short answer, so if you had reservations about 1222 I'd suggest you come back to the start as well. See if you can get a connection with this series from where it's all supposed to kick off.