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: Don’t Look Back, by Karin Fossum

6 02 2018

Karin Fossum is a Norwegian crime novelist with a background in healthcare, best known for her long-running ‘Inspector Konrad Sejer’ series of police procedurals. She’s won numerous awards for her writing, including the Riverton, Glass Key, Martin Beck, and Gumshoe awards. I’ve previously reviewed several of Fossum’s other titles in the ‘Konrad Sejer’ series.


Don’t Look Back (Se deg ikke tillbaka!, 1996, translated by Felicity David) is the second in the Sejer series, though the first to appear in English translation. It opens with the apparent abduction of five-year-old Ragnhild on her walk home from a sleepover within a small Norwegian community, but (on Ragnhild’s safe return) instead becomes an investigation into the murder of fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Annie Holland (her body found by Ragnhild), dead, naked and ostensibly drowned in the backwoods tarn on whose shore she was left lying. Within the close-knit community Annie was widely known and apparently universally liked; so why was she killed? There are no signs of sexual assault, no indications of her involvement in anything illicit: Sejer and his colleagues must dig deep within the mess of secrets that lurk at the little village’s heart.

Fossum’s crime novels have a tendency to unfold with a surprising gentleness, in part because Konrad Sejer is an atypical Nordic sleuth—a soft-spoken, abstemious, widowed grandfather, seemingly unwilling to think ill of his fellow humans—and in part because Fossum takes care to subtly emphasise the humanity and complexity of all her characters. It’s almost possible, if one doesn’t probe too deeply within the story, to categorise it as ‘cosy’; and yet that would be a mistake, since there is definitely a grim backbone of steel beneath the writing’s outer layers, and a terrier-like determination to Sejer’s investigational style. The crime that unfolds is tragic on several levels, and more confronting because we have been led to care about all of the participants. Fossum is, for my money, one of the best of the Nordic crime novelists, her unhurried storytelling both intellectually and emotionally satisfying (and, often, as here, thoroughly disquieting).

Book review: Wolves in the Dark, by Gunnar Staalesen

11 01 2018

Gunnar Staalesen is a Norwegian crime novelist best known for his long-running series of ‘Varg Veum’ novels, featuring a sporadically heavy-drinking Bergen-based private investigator. The first Veum novel was published in 1979 and Staalesen has now written around twenty titles in the series, though only a minority have yet been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed one of them, Where Roses Never Die, here.


Wolves in the Dark (Ingen er så trygg i fare, 2014, translated by Don Bartlett) opens with Veum’s arrest on charges of possession of child pornography. Veum knows himself to be innocent, but the evidence on his computer professes otherwise. And when compromising photographs emerge in which Veum himself features, the police’s conviction that they’ve arrested a significant participant in an international online child porn ring only becomes more substantial. Nonetheless, the PI’s defence lawyer maintains that they should be able to determine whether the offending material has been placed on Veum’s computer by another user, given sufficient time. It’s probably not the smartest move, therefore, for Veum to do a runner when the opportunity suddenly presents itself, but he’s determined to demonstrate his innocence by following the more hands-on approach he’s accustomed to in his investigations. The trouble is that (aside from the slight problem that the police are now scouring the city for him) he presumes that he must have done something over the past few years to have made enemies determined enough to have framed him for one of the most unspeakable categories of crime … and he’s spent an inconvenient proportion of those past few years in an alcoholic haze and has therefore forgotten more than he can remember.

Veum is, at times, a highly frustrating protagonist, but he’s nonetheless a strongly sympathetic character overall: deeply flawed, not always functional, but fiercely determined and unafraid to take risks which, often, he gets away with. The book is dense with complication—it’s a fairly elaborate setup—but there’s enough space, within the interstices of an intricate and quite heavily-populated plot, for sufficient detail in setting and depth of characterisation to satisfy the reader. I did find myself wondering whether the book’s busyness and pace was well-suited to the gravity of the subject matter: I think a slower, more reflective tale might have provided more scope to properly explore what is, after all, a highly fraught (and sadly perenially topical) issue. But that wouldn’t, I think, be Staalesen’s style. Here, he concerns himself with first unravelling and then tying up a myriad of loose ends in a stylish story heavy on intrigue and menace. It’s not, perhaps, the equal of its highly impressive immediate predecessor, Where Roses Never Die, but it’s a rewarding enough addition to the series.

Book review: Punishment, by Anne Holt

13 12 2017

There are a fairly large number of crime fiction writers who have previously served with the police, and a fair few also who have for a time been lawyers. But there cannot be that many who have also acted as their country’s Minister of Justice. Anne Holt is a long-established Norwegian crime novelist whose backstory does indeed include those exploits. She’s probably best known as the author of the ‘Hanne Wilhemsen’ series of police procedurals, the first two instalments of which—Blind Goddess and Blessed Are Those Who Thirst—I’ve reviewed previously.


Punishment (Det som mitt, 2001, translated by Kari Dickson) is the first novel in Holt’s second sequence, bringing together senior detective Adam Stubo and criminology researcher Johanne Vik. Vik is informally seeking to illuminate an apparent historical miscarriage of justice, with an innocent man (Aksel Seier) serving nine years in jail, from 1956 to 1965, for the rape and murder of a child before his release and subsequent emigration to the US. Stubo has much more immediate concerns: within the span of a week, two children, nine-year-old Emilie and four-year-old Kim, have been brazenly abducted. There’s no apparent connection between Emilie’s and Kim’s families, no ransom demands, no reliable witness statements, and in desperation Stubo asks for help from a researcher he’s seen interviewed on TV (Vik). She’s unwilling to immerse herself in the case, but when Kim turns up dead shortly before an eight-year-old goes missing, she finds herself drawn into the investigation.

I’m not sure whether it’s the series’ setup or the fact that, by the time Punishment came out, Holt already had a half-dozen Hanne Wilhelmsen procedurals under her belt (and had therefore, one presumes, developed significantly as a writer), but I found this distinctly more rewarding than the Wilhelmsen novels I’ve read to date (which are, admittedly, only the first two). The pace is well-tempered, the polite though sometimes flinty working relationship between Stubo and Vik is delicately drawn, the abductor’s means of execution is fiendishly ingenious. There are a lot of moving parts here, all played expertly and without sliding into excess. All of this bodes well for the further works in the sequence.

Book review: The Bat, by Jo Nesbø

29 11 2017

Jo Nesbø is a Norwegian crime novelist whose CV includes previous stints as a footballer, musician and reporter. He is most widely known for his longrunning ‘Harry Hole’ series of novels, and has won several awards including the Riverton Award, the Glass Key Award, the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize and the Peer Gynt Prize; he has also been shortlisted for an Edgar Award. I’ve previously reviewed his Blood on Snow / Midnight Sun short-novel double here.


The Bat (Flaggermusmannen, 1997, translated by Don Bartlett; a title that translates literally to ‘Batman’, thus offering considerable scope for confusion) is Nesbø’s debut novel and the first in the Harry Hole series. It has a setting that’s somewhat unusual for a Norwegian crime novel: Sydney. (It was apparently written during an extended holiday which Nesbø took in Australia, during which time he was supposed instead to be working on a book describing his time in a rock band.) The novel’s pretext is that a Norwegian woman holidaying in Sydney, Inger Holter, has been found raped and murdered; Hole, a troubled Oslo police officer, has been sent out to Australia to escort her remains back to Norway. Harry has no official involvement in the investigation into Holter’s death but, assigned an obliging ‘chaperone’ from the local Homicide division, he decides to assist in an advisory capacity. Naturally—this being crime fiction—he ends up much deeper in than that.

The Bat suffers from a few first-novel problems: the pacing is patchy, there’s perhaps rather too much monologue-as-exposition, the characters don’t always ring true. (In particular, I wasn’t convinced by the risktaking, on a supporting character’s part, that set up the story’s climactic third act.) I might have expected also that the book would betray a superficial knowledge of Australian culture and character, but in fact it doesn’t do too badly on this score: outside of a reference to ‘the single-track railway to Darling Harbour’ (i.e., the monorail), it acquits itself fairly well, though does get too infodumpish in places. Harry is an engaging though not appealing character: marked by alcoholism and rather too ready with his fists as a means of interrogation, he’s nonetheless capable of significant insight, reflection, and vulnerability. The book’s antipodean location means it’s of limited usefulness as an introduction to his ‘patch’—we get elements of the Harry Hole backstory, but see nothing (save in flashback) of his home environment and colleagues—but it’s an interesting enough investigation and establishes its main character well. If it feels more like a prelude than an introduction to the series as a whole, it still shows an ability with tension and intrigue that helps explain Nesbø’s considerable success in the genre.

Book review: See You Tomorrow, by Tore Renberg

17 09 2017

Tore Renberg is a Norwegian author (and, for a short time, vocalist in a band, Lemen, which also included fellow author Karl Over Knausgård on drums) perhaps best known for his 2003 novel Mannen som elsket Yngve (translated as The Man Who Loved Yngve) which was adapted in 2011 into a well-received Norwegian-language film. Of the dozen books he’s written to date, most are probably best categorised as mainstream or literary fiction; his excursion into crime fiction (or, to be more accurate, fiction about criminals, which isn’t necessarily the same thing) is comparatively recent, and opens with the book reviewed here.


See You Tomorrow (Vi Ses i Morgen, 2013, translated by Seàn Kinsella) entangles the lives of Pål Fagerlund, divorced (and dangerously indebted) father of two; ‘Rudi’ (Rune Dingervold), petty criminal and speed addict; Sandra, a fifteen-year-old rebelling against her straitlaced Christian upbringing by falling in with shady Daniel William Moi; and a dozen other figures. In pacing and in intensity of characterisation, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s gothic-fantasy Gormenghast trilogy, though it scarcely shares the latter’s fascination with architectural grotesquerie. As with Peake’s masterwork, the action advances with almost glacial slowness (the book takes around five hundred and fifty pages to encompass three days’ quite brisk activity) and with a sequentially close focus on its several disparate characters, several of whom are drawn with an affectionately caricaturish exaggeration rather in the style of John Kennedy Toole’s blackly comic A Confederacy of Dunces. The core of the book is concerned with the plan by jobbing crook Rudi and his mentor Jan Inge (‘Jani’) to burglarise and assault the online-gambling addict Pål so as to solve, through the subsequent bogus home-insurance claim, his million-kroner debt problem; a methodology which Jani proudly commends to Pål as ‘a time-honoured classic’. Jani takes considerable pride, almost an evangelical zeal, in his team’s workmanlike criminality, but is his confidence in their professionalism justified? The drug use, the double dealing, and the attentions of the local rozzers might suggest otherwise …

There’s a lot else happening in the book besides the insurance job: Sandra’s doomed relationship with Daniel; Rudi’s girlfriend Cecilie’s worries over the paternity of the new life burgeoning in her womb; Pål’s emo daughter Tiril’s run-ins with the hopelessly gauche Shaun and his psychotic big brother Kenny; and the graunch of a hundred moving parts as everyone’s hidden agenda gets in the way of everybody else’s.

The prose shines with a kaleidoscopic immediacy that is, in places, almost painful to read, as lives end, lives begin, and life goes on. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it … and I quite like it.

Book review: Faithless, by Kjell Ola Dahl

28 08 2017

Kjell Ola Dahl is a Norwegian writer who, amongst other works, has written around a dozen crime novels featuring the Oslo detectives Frølich and Gunnarstranda. His work (most of which, at this point, has not seen English translation) has won the Riverton Award and has been shortlisted for the Glass Key and Martin Beck awards.


Faithless (Kvinnen i plast, 2010, translated by Don Bartlett) opens, in the small hours, with Detective Frank Frølich on stakeout outside the home of suspected underworld figure Kadir Zahid. When a woman, Veronika Undset, leaves Zahid’s residence in the early morning, Frølich decides to bring her in for questioning. Undset claims ignorance of any illegal activities in which Zahid might be involved, but a search of her handbag reveals a small quantity of cocaine concealed in an empty cigarette lighter. She’s issued a fine and released with a caution. A few days later, she’s found dead from a large number of stab wounds; her body also shows signs of postmortem exposure to boiling water, applied presumably for the removal of DNA evidence following a sexual assault. In the interval between her questioning and her death, Frølich has learnt that she’s the fiancée of his estranged friend Karl Anders Fransgård, whose alibi for the night of Undset’s death transpires to be unreliable …

Faithless is a busy, scrappy procedural with a complicated setup. (As if the Undset investigation weren’t enough, Frølich is also puzzling over the disappearance of an African summer student, last seen late one night in the company of an indie film director, while his colleague Lena is wondering just how far to push her relationship with an overly-aggressive police officer.) It’s interesting, aside from the ins and outs of the investigation per se, for its warts-and-all portrayal of the mindsets of the officers involved. I suspect it’s not the ideal introduction to the Frølich & Gunnarstranda series, since it occurs quite late in the sequence and may well rely on the reader’s prior understanding of the characters involved, but it’s deftly plotted and manages at several points to overturn the reader’s developing suspicions.