Book review: Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, by Anne Holt

27 07 2017

Anne Holt is a Norwegian crime novelist whose CV includes the former occupations of lawyer (both in private practice and in affiliation with the Oslo police department) and Justice Minister. She is best known for her ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ series of police procedurals. I’ve previously reviewed the first in that series, Blind Goddess, here.

BlessedAreThoseWhoThirst

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst (Salige er de søm Torster, 1994, translated by Anne Bruce) is the second in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, and begins with the police investigation of a sequence of unusual Saturday-night bloodlettings, with disturbing quantities of blood (but no apparent victims) found in isolated or derelict buildings around Oslo, accompanied each time by the daubing of an eight-digit number in the spilt blood. Still, without any bodies associated with the blood, the incidents might well amount to nothing more than a particularly messy case of littering. A much more tangible crime—the vicious sexual assault of a medical student, Kristine Håverstad, by an unknown assailant—soon claims DI Wilhelmsen’s attention, and she does her best to juggle both investigations. Håverstad and her father Finn both struggle to process the assault, its aftermath, and the apparent police indifference to her situation as the ‘buckets of blood’ investigation takes priority following a gruesome discovery.

There are several things to like about the Hanne Wilhelmsen series: Wilhelmsen herself is a lesbian police officer who feels compelled to keep the nature of her home life (with partner Cecilie, a doctor) hidden from her colleagues, and this gives the narrative an innate additional strand of tension. Holt also clearly has the ability to identify with the plight of the victims of crime, and to realise the various ways in which the police system can let down those whom it is supposed to protect. But there’s also a sense in which Holt’s insider knowledge of the judicial and law enforcement systems gets in the way of the story: not through excessive description of the law or of police procedures, but through a stance which suggests that all of the problems inherent in the task of policing could be resolved through the provision of sufficient additional resources, yet which downplays the occurrence of discord between overworked officers tasked with often-conflicting duties. The officers, in short, are collectively rather too nice to feel entirely credible: nobody snaps, nobody pulls rank, nobody sounds off to any significant degree, at variance with the expected behaviour for a group of people under substantial and sustained pressure. I also wish there wasn’t quite so much head-hopping: often we’re presented with multiple personal viewpoints within the same scene, where my preference would be to have just one viewpoint character per section. The language, too, feels clunky and self-conscious in places, though in these cases it’s always difficult to know whether the flaws are with the original text or with the translation.

Those grumbles aside, the investigation proceeds in an interesting fashion, without unnecessary sensationalism and with a solid thread of social commentary which remains more-or-less topical in a story now almost a quarter-century old. Hanne is an intriguing character, possibly less daring now than she was at the time of the novel’s writing, but a refreshing change from the ranks of divorced hard-drinking chain-smokers so often cast in the role of principal protagonist in this type of story. And I’m always inclined to look favourably on crime novels which manage to include a gratuitous Moomin reference: here it’s to Comet in Moominland, on page 91.

All up, Blessed adds up to a solid and inventive crime story, not always note-perfect but worthwhile nonetheless.

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