Book review: Dregs, by Jørn Lier Horst

20 04 2018

Jørn Lier Horst is a Norwegian crime fiction author and former Senior Investigating Officer in the Vestfold police force. His work has won several notable Scandinavian crime fiction awards, including the Riverton, Glass Key, Martin Beck, and Petrona Awards. He is best known for his series of eleven police procedural novels featuring detective William Wisting; the latter six of these novels, starting with Dregs, have been published in English translation. I’ve previously reviewed the most recent instalment in the Wisting sequence, When It Grows Dark, here.


Dregs (Bunnfall, 2010, translated by Anne Bruce) opens with the discovery of a waterlogged running shoe washed ashore in Stavern’s bay. It’s the second such running shoe to have beached in the past week. This would hardly be a coincidence worth remarking, except for three things: one, the shoes don’t match in brand, size, or age; two, they’re both left shoes; and three, they each still contain the severed left feet of their respective owners. While the first shoe’s discovery had not automatically been taken as an indication of foul play—bodies lost at sea can break up over time, and shod feet are sometimes found in isolation as a result of natural processes—the second raises a clear red flag. Wisting is placed in charge of the resulting investigation.

The premise of Dregs is sufficiently unusual that it engages the reader’s curiosity from the outset. This, and the novel’s careful, precise detail are major drawcards. Lier Horst’s earlier police career gives the book a verisimilitude analogous to that found in the crime fiction of former Norwegian policewoman, lawyer, and Justice Minister Anne Holt, or of Swedish criminologists Leif G W Persson and Christoffer Carlsson, though the sparsely descriptive, somewhat self-minimising tone of Dregs is closer than any of these to Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s pioneering (and excellent) ‘Martin Beck’ series. (It’s refreshing, too, to encounter a Nordic sleuth who isn’t, in one way or another, in the thrall of substance abuse.) The characterisation, notably the capable Wisting himself, his journalist daughter Line, his colleague Torunn Borg, and the convicted-murderer-turned-mechanic Ken Ronny Hauge (who is one of the ex-cons Line is conducting in-depth interviews with, for a major article she’s writing) is certainly strong enough to help keep the reader invested in the story. (Mention should also be made, however, of one of my frequent pet peeves in Scandicrime, which Lier Horst’s characterisation falls hostage to: the Obviously Irritating Colleague, played here by the promotion-hungry Assistant Chief of Police, Audun Vetti. While such characters can occasionally play a useful role in a story, they need to be sculpted with care so as to convince the reader of their validity; all too often, they’re mishandled.)

What most impresses with Dregs, and what seems most likely to linger in the mind, is the crime, which has been constructed with a robust eye to detail and which resonates because of this. It’s an excellent starting point for those curious about Lier Horst’s fiction (particularly since the five preceding books in the series haven’t yet been translated). Recommended.


Book review: When It Grows Dark, by Jørn Lier Horst

16 03 2017

Jørn Lier Horst is a former Norwegian police officer and a crime fiction writer whose ‘William Wisting’ series of police procedurals now comprises eleven titles, although the first five appear not to have been translated into English. His work has won numerous prizes including the Riverton, Glass Key, and Petrona awards.


When It Grows Dark (Når det mørkner, 2016, translated by Anne Bruce) is the most recent entry in the Wisting series but, aside from the present-day ‘framing story’ composed from the book’s first and last chapters, this short novel is essentially a prequel to the earlier books. The bulk of the text takes us back to the events of December 1983, when Wisting is just starting on a career as a policeman, but much of the text concerns an unsolved crime from over a half-century earlier, as Wisting tries to piece together the sequence of events that led to his discovery of a long-hidden car, pierced by bullet hotes, that lies in a dilapidated shed a short distance from a quiet country backroad. Who shot up the car? Why was it hidden? And how did the doors of the shed come to be padlocked on both the inside and outside? Most of the people who could have answered such questions have died of old age in the time that the car has lain rusting in the shed, but a few of those connected with the events leading to the vehicle’s long seclusion are still available for Wisting to interview. But will the young policeman manage to wrap up a mystery already fifty-eight years old?

There’s no sensationalism here, the story is told in plain and streamlined language, and yet the credible detail and methodical approach leads to a story that is, in its own way, quite compelling and steeped in atmosphere. It has much of the same sense of patient intrigue as Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series and, as a short novel that appears to comprise Wisting’s first significant case, it serves as an excellent introduction to Lier Horst’s writing.