1222, by Anne Holt

>> Thursday, March 17, 2011

TITLE: 1222
AUTHOR: Anne Holt

PAGES: 313

SETTING: Contemporary Norway
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: This appears to be the 8th novel in the Hanne Wilmhelmsen series, but I understand it's the first to have been translated into English.

REASON FOR READING: First book I've read after downloading a sample on my Kindle! I wasn't intrigued enough to actually purchase it, but I did request it from my library. I would definitely buy it now, though, since I just had a look and it's only £1 for the UK Kindle! Grrr, I paid almost that (60p!) for the library hold and then had to struggle with the heavy hardcover.

1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered.

With the storm showing no sign of abating, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is asked to investigate. But Hanne has no wish to get involved. She has learned the hard way that truth comes at a price and sometimes that price just isn’t worth paying. Her pursuit of truth and justice has cost her the love of her life, her career in the Oslo Police Department and her mobility: she is paralysed from the waist down by a bullet lodged in her spine. Trapped in a wheelchair, trapped by the killer within, trapped by the deadly storm outside, Hanne’s growing unease is shared by everyone in the hotel.

Should she investigate, or should she just wait for help to arrive? And all the time rumours swirl about a secret cargo carried by train 601. Why was the last carriage sealed? Why is the top floor of the hotel locked down? Who or what is being concealed? And, of course, what if the killer strikes again?
A train travelling towards Northern Norway crashes amid the worst snowstorm in years. Fortunately, not only is the death toll very low and the injuries not too bad, there is also a hotel close by. The survivors are immediately transported there, where they're promptly snowed in and isolated, with no hope of rescue for a few days at least. Still, the hotel is fully provisioned for the winter and there are plenty of empty rooms, so everyone should be comfy enough. But then, as the first morning dawns, a body is discovered right outside the hotel. It's one of the passengers, and he has been shot.

Coincidentally, former police detective Hanne Wilmhelson was on the train. She's not with the police any longer, since a shooting has left her paraplegic, so her initial reaction is to try to stay out of it. Surely the best thing to do is to wait until the police come. There's a limited number of possible murderers, so it shouldn't be hard to solve the case, especially snce the police, unlike her, will have the power to interrogate people and make them answer their questions. But when the death toll starts rising, Hanne feels that, reluctant or not, she needs to do something.

Hanne is interesting. But as I found out more about her, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jasper Fforde's hilarious Nursery Crimes detective books. What came to mind was how in the first one, The Big Over Easy, the detectives who want their cases published by the the powerful Guild of Detectives have to do their utmost to be quirky and different, all the better to entertain the reading public. The main character's wife puts in the application of this very normal, loving family man that that he's owns a vintage Rolls Royce, is divorced and bitter and has a drinking problem. Even more extreme, his superintendent reveals that he's been learning Urdu and taken up the trombone, but that doesn't seem to be quirky enough. Should he change his name to F"ongotskil'ernie?

Well, with Hanne I kind got the feeling that it felt like Holt was doing her best to get her accepted by the Guild. She's a former police detective who is in a wheelchair since she was paralysed after being shot on a case. She's a lesbian, in a relationship with a Muslim woman who, it is intimated in this book, became pregnant in spite of Hanne insisting she didn't want to be a mother. She's also a bit antisocial and withdrawn, to the point of rudeness.

Don't get me wrong, as I say above, I did find her interesting. I just felt it was all a bit over the top. It did leave me intrigued to read the previous books, though, because there isn't really all that much development of Hanne's personal stuff here. After all, she's away from her family and normal life for the whole book. I expect there must be more in previous books.

Interesting or not, Hanne exasperated me at the beginning. I suppose you can read her character as someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly and isn't willing to spend effort keeping up polite fictions just to make sure people's feelings don't get hurt. I just read her as rude and inconsiderate, at least at the beginning. Soon, though, I began warming up to her a bit, but this was because she began warming up as well. She started interacting a bit more with people, rather than just withdrawing and ignoring anyone who spoke to her, and that made her a more interesting character to me.

And if Hanne was interesting, so were a few of the other characters (many of whom were also good candidates for the Guild of Detectives). There's the populist priest. There's the Islamophobe activist who clashes with two muslim characters who, Hanne soon discovers, are much more than they seem. There's the doctor with dwarfism who refuses to accept Hanne's withdrawal and gets past her defenses. There's the frazzled hotel manager who unexpectedly finds strength inside herself. There's the young punk who Hanne almost-but-not-quite befriends. There's the young goth girl, and many more. I quite enjoyed them all.

The actual mystery was not the most fascinating I've ever read, but it was ok enough. What I did really, really like was the Agatha Christie-ish setup and resolution. This is basically a house party mystery, and we get one of those big reveal scenes like Christie used to have, with Poirot gathering round all the suspects and having this big revelation. This was obviously a conscious choice on Holt's part (there's even a reference by Hanne to her little grey cells!), and I got a kick out of the homage.

I also thought the setting was fantastic. The cold and the snow and the storm were really atmospheric and brilliantly done. I also liked that there was a very definite sense of place. This was very definitely set in Norway, and no other place. I was especially interested in Hanne's reflections about Norwegianness and national characters. I found it funny, if not unexpected, that she would be so glum about corrupt politicians and greed. Very definitely not a surprise to me to find a huge difference between the perception of the country from people abroad and that from the people living there. I've found that to be the case here in England as well -people seem to be weirdly convinced that their country is complete rubbish and that nothing works. They have no idea what they've got, I say, having lived elsewhere!

Anyway, now for the negatives, I'm afraid. First, the Writing felt a bit clumsy and awkward sometimes, but I'm aware this is a translation, so I'm not sure whether it's the author or the translator who's responsible for the way the writing felt. Whichever, I'll give her a pass for that. Unfortunately, the pacing was a bit clunky as well, and things dragged a bit in the middle. The action got brisker at the end, though, and I ended up turning the pages quite quickly.

Another thing that annoyed me was the resolution of a mystery that's in the background all through the book. When the train left the original stations, all the passengers could see that the bit of platform by the last carriage was blocked off and guarded by security. So after the crash, there's a lot of speculation about just what was being transported in that carriage. Is it a member of the Royal family? Is it something security-related? Hanne has her suspicions, which she shares with us. She's a bit cryptic about it, but I thought I knew exactly what and who she was talking about. But then there was the final scene, which left be a bit baffled. Was I supposed to recognise this person from Hanne's description? If it hadn't been for the word "handsome" and a mention of an unexpected hair colour, I would have closed the book convinced I had got Hanne's hints right. But as it is, I have no idea who this person was. Maybe I would need to have read previous books in the series to do so? I would appreciate any clarifications!

That's annoying enough, but the real problem was that this element of the book also was completely gratuitous. I kept expecting that it would have some sort of bearing on the main mystery, or even on Hanne's personal life, but it didn't. It's completely unrelated. It could have been cut completely without taking anything away. So what was the point of it, other than adding a few more pages?



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