Tag Archives: Norwegian crime fiction

Macbeth: Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo’s novel Macbeth is a departure from the Harry Hole novels, and instead, this is one in the Hogarth Shakespeare series novels. The story is set in the 70s in a grimy unpleasant, town—a dreary port town which has suffered a severe economic downturn–not that the town was ever that great:

The raindrop went from shiny to grey as it penetrated the soot and the poison that lay like a constant lid of mist over the town despite the fact that in recent years the factories had closed one after the other. Despite the fact that the unemployed could no longer afford to light their stoves. In spite of the capricious and stormy wind and the incessant rain that some claimed hadn’t started to fall until the second world world had been ended by two atomic bombs a quarter of a century ago. 

At one time the “country’s second-largest and once most important industrial centre” it’s now a “quagmire of corruption, bankruptcies, crime and chaos.” The former police chief commissioner, now dead, has been replaced by Duncan, and of course, he’s expected to ‘clean up’ the town. The factories may be closed, but the drug trade is booming and the town’s two casinos are more popular than ever.

Macbeth

The dagger-obsessed Inspector Macbeth runs the SWAT team and his wife, known as “lady,” runs a casino. With the stage set (not to mention Shakespeare’s plot) for a power struggle, we know this story is going to be violent and bloody.

The book is at its best with its strong, grim atmosphere, with the glittering Inverness casino and Obelisk, a “twenty-storey glass hotel and casino that stood up like an illuminated index finger from the brownish-black four-storey wretchedness that constituted the rest of the town.” The imagery of these casinos as alluring lighthouses for the desperate depressed is strong, but for this reader, other aspects of the tale did not work:

So that was why Banquo waited until he saw Macbeth reappear on the other side of the square and walk into the light by the entrance to the casino, from which a tall woman with flowing flame-red hair in a long red dress emerged and hugged him, as though a phantom had warned her that her beloved was on his way.

The names alone interfered in the tale with the result that the gritty update seems to be artificially glommed onto Shakespeare’s great tragedy.

Translated by Don Bartlett

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Nesbo Jo

1222 by Anne Holt

2011 brought a new-found appreciation for Icelandic literature in the form of Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets and The Ambassador, so fast forward to December 2011 and me thinking it would be a good idea to read something seasonal. No Xmas cosy for me. Instead I read 1222 by Norwegian crime author Anne Holt. It’s the sort of novel that makes you glad you’re inside with the doors locked and not stuck in a snowstorm somewhere freezing in Norway.

The action starts immediately with a dramatic train derailment at Finse 1222. We’re in Northern Norway on a trip from Oslo to Bergen in the middle of the worst blizzard recorded in over 100 years. The story is told by passenger, Hanne Wilhelmsen, a  former police officer who left the force after being paralyzed by a bullet still lodged in the spine. Hanne probably never had the best personality, and now she’s even more prickly.  More of that later.

The stunned passengers are rescued and removed from the train and taken to a nearby centuries old hotel. There’s plenty of food, and it’s warm, so all the 268 people have to do is wait out the storm. They should feel fortunate as only one person died in the derailment. Yes there are an assortment of sundry injuries, but it could have been worse, and since a number of doctors were on board the train to attend a conference, at least there’s medical help available. That’s just as well as the passengers and train crew are completely stranded and isolated. Finse 1222 is only accessible by train.  Due to the snow storm,  the televisions in the hotel aren’t working and snowploughs cannot get to the hotel.  

Right after the rescue, it becomes obvious to Hanne that there’s something fishy going on. The train held some anonymous VIP who stayed in a separate carriage surrounded by armed guards, and this person now occupies the top floor of the hotel. Any attempt to connect with the mysterious guest ends up with threats of violence. Nice.

Within just a few short hours, an execution-style murder takes place, and while Hanne and a few other people at the hotel are in on the fact that one of the guests was shot at point-blank range, the truth is, at first, kept from the general hotel population in order to avoid panic. Think stampede.

Since Hanne is a retired police officer, and a famous one at that, she’s expected to take over the investigation by the hotel management. At first she tries to shove the responsibility over to someone else, but when the body count rises and there’s no contact with the outside world in sight, Hanne reluctantly finds herself being dragged back into the world of criminal investigation. Here’s Hanne’s thoughts on the matter:

When it comes to the actual murder, that can wait. There’s no point in starting an investigation here and now. Wait for better weather. Wait for the police. Let them do what they can and this will all be cleared up in no time.

At least that’s what she tells solicitor Geir Rugholmen and hotel manager, Berit Tverre. The few guests who know about the murder can’t understand why Hanne refuses the responsibility of the investigation, but Hanne is one step ahead of everyone else. She reasons that the murderer walks amongst the guests. An overt investigation will provoke panic and paranoia, so she clings to that reason while silently ruminating that an investigation will make the killer nervous.

In the meantime, I thought, there’s a murderer with a heavy calibre weapon wandering around amongst us. In the meantime we can only hope that the intention of the person in question was to murder ** [no spoilers], and that he or she would not dream of harming anyone else. While we are waiting for the police, I thought without saying anything, we could pray to the gods every one of us must believe in that the perpetrator was rational, focused, and did not suspect any of us of knowing who he or she was. And that he or she would have no reason to suspect that anyone might be starting to investigate the case here and now.

The situation in the hotel begins to unravel fast, and Hanne finds that she must use her old skills to whether or not she wants to….

I’ve read some reviews that compare this to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and obviously there are some similarities between these two  “closed circle of suspect” mysteries. In fact the narrator doesn’t fail to make the connection:

I thought about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I immediately tried to dismiss the thought. And Then There Were None is a story that doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.

The similarities to Agatha Christie must be acknowledged, but those similarities reside in the set-up, and 1222 is refreshingly bitter thanks to its edgy narrator, Hanne, a woman who’s become anti-social almost to the point of pathology. Hanne doesn’t exactly shine in the personality department. In fact she actively tries to keep people away from her by her taciturn comments. Not that I blame her. Here she is with Geir Rugholmen:

He placed his hands on his hips and looked down his nose at me. That look from those who are standing up, the tall ones, the ones whose bodies work perfectly. Strictly speaking, I think it’s perfectly ok to have mobility problems. I want to be immobile; that’s the way I’ve chosen to live. The chair doesn’t really hamper me significantly in my everyday life. It can be weeks before between the occasions on which I leave my apartment. The problems arise when I am forced to go out. People are just desperate to help me all the time. Lifting, pushing, carrying. That’s why I chose the train. Flying is a complete nightmare, I have to say. The train is simpler. Less touching. Fewer strange hands. The train offers at least some degree of independence.

Until it crashed….

 Added to the tension at the hotel is a anti-muslim nut who manages to whip up fear and paranoia amongst the guests. 1222 is apparently number 8 in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. The fact that I’m jumping late on board didn’t seem to matter; Hanne’s life was fully explained, so no pieces of the puzzle were missing.

Review copy from the publisher via netgalley.

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Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum

“All my life I have imagined that my morals were high, that I was decent and honest and truthful. But what happened to my morals when I was tested?”

I came across a review of Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum at Reading Matters. I’d heard of the book before, and while I’m not that thrilled with Scandinavian crime novels, Kim’s review made me rethink my initial dismissal. Bad Intentions is one in a series of Inspector Sejer mysteries. This is the first I’ve read, but that didn’t seem to matter. Some reviews I read complained about the lack of Inspector Sejer’s presence in the novel, and it’s true that he isn’t around a great deal until closer to the end of the book. This is somewhat unusual for a series novel as readers frequently return to the next novel in order to hang out with a favourite fictional character. The lack of Inspector Sejer’s appearances did not trouble me as I am new to the series, and the story of Bad Intentions is engrossing. Even though there’s not much about Sejer’s personal life here, there’s enough info about his psychology to make him interesting. This is a man who dislikes loose ends:

He liked interrogating people, he liked spotting the lie when it came. A lie had its own pitch, and over many years he had learned to recognise it. He liked the moment when the confession finally spilled out, when all the cards were on the table and the course of events could be mapped out and filed.

The story begins on Friday the 13th of September (not a good sign) with three young men who’ve arrived at an isolated lakeside cabin: Axel is a 25-year-old advertising executive who drives a Mercedes, Philip is a passive druggie who barely manages to hold a menial job at a hospital, and finally there’s Jon, a frail young man with a number of health problems. Jon is currently a resident at a local mental hospital, and he’s been encouraged by his therapist to go off for this weekend with his friends. He’s a nervous wreck and popping anxiety pills every four hours doesn’t seem to help.

Obviously the three have shared childhood memories and are around the same age, but apart from that it’s not easy to see why they maintain this relationship. Axel is a domineering, materialistic character who makes the decisions for all three. He’s a charmer, a born actor and it seems odd that he’d continue, in adulthood, to hang out with Philip and Jon. The ill-groomed Philip’s behaviour is marred by passivity and drug use, and Jon is a tangled, neurotic mess. It’s arguable that Jon and Philip might want to hang out with Axel since he has more independence, but why does Axel want to hang out with these two?

Axel suggests a boat trip onto the lake in the moonlight:

Axel Frimann was looking out of the window. It was almost midnight on 13 September and the moon cast a pale blue light across the water. There was something magical about it all. At any moment, Axel imagined, a water sprite might rise from the depths. Just as the image came to him, he thought he saw a ripple in the water as though something was about to surface. But nothing happened and a smile, which no one noticed, crossed his face.

Three men leave and two return. Can’t say more than that, and then the novel segues into the investigation. The novel peels away layer after layer of deceit, and the mystery becomes not just what happened that night, but the events that led up to that night.

Bad Intentions is a page-turner as it explores the psychology of the relationships between these three young men. One of the reasons the novel appealed is that it taps into a pet theory of mine–that certain combinations of character types can be deadly. The title gives clues to the novel’s moral message. I am fond of the proverb “The Road to hell is paved with good intentions” and in this novel, we see three young men–two of whom are weak and malleable who make some very bad choices. Crimes take place within these pages, but at the heart of these crimes lies the question of intention. And how can we know what anyone really intended to happen? We are only left with the consequences.

Axel started listing the good intentions which had motivated them originally. What had followed was bad luck, pure and simple, and beyond their control. In a moment of weakness they had been tricked by one of nature’s whims.

Inspector Sejer and his sidekick Jacob Skarre find that they must unravel a mystery in which intention plays a pivotal role. Their investigation takes them to Ladegarden Psychiatric Hospital and to the homes of grieving mothers. The best thing about the novel is its different slant on crime. There’s an emphasis on guilt, responsibility and intent, and at one point Inspector Sejer gives a very interesting speech on the subject:

Just because you’re to blame for something doesn’t mean you accept that blame. Or that you feel guilty. Gacy killed more than thirty people, but he said it was like squashing cockroaches. When he was finally caught, he went on about his childhood and how awful it had been. He spoke the following classic line when he was put in prison: “I’m the real victim here.”

My copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the Kindle.

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