Anne Holt: 1222

B

1222

Author: Anne Holt
Publisher: Scribner

Anne Holt, Norway’s bestselling female crime writer and its former minister of justice, is just the latest in a long string of Scandinavians translated into English and sold on U.S. shores in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Stieg Larsson’s novels. (See also: bestseller Jo Nesbø.) Holt’s work doesn’t have the primal, dark gut-punch now associated with Scandinavian crime fiction, but she has a great protagonist to carry her through her story’s rough patches.

1222’s setup is suitably apocalyptic, to the point where the relatively normal murder-mystery elements that follow can’t help being a disappointment. A train accident results in more than a hundred passengers being forced to take shelter in a nearby hotel amid a blizzard of almost Biblical fury. As the storm intensifies, a man is murdered. Questions start to float through the hotel about who could have done it, about the identity of the passenger in a strange carriage added to the train late in the trip, about the larger story. As the winds work at picking the hotel apart, piece by piece, Hanne Wilhelmsen, a prickly former police officer now confined to a wheelchair, does her best to keep the killer from striking again.

It’s a classic Agatha Christie-style setup—Holt even contrives a way to get Hanne in the same room as everybody in the hotel to ask them all the usual “And where were you on the night in question?” inquiries, in what might be the book’s most delightful scene—but Holt isn’t after something as dark and terrifying as, say, Christie’s And Then There Were None. Though she references that book—Hanne is well aware of the crime fiction that precedes her—Holt keeps things relatively small-scale. That can prove frustrating for fans of clockwork mysteries, where every single story point comes together like a satisfying puzzle, but it’s probably more realistic. In the end, the biggest danger comes from the storm itself, and the identity of the murderer is fairly obvious. But Holt still has fun with the usual tropes of the confined-location murder mystery, and with building up the paranoid claustrophobia to a point where it seems certain to snap.

None of this would work without Holt’s strong eye for character. Hanne is a fantastic lead, dragged back into the case almost by pure instinct, but relishing the chance to get back in the game after the shooting that landed her in the wheelchair. But her attitude also pushes people away, right down to her lesbian partner and their child, whom she only remembers to call to let know she’s safe after nearly a full day at the hotel. Hanne occasionally seems like she’s been constructed as a character to tick off a number of boxes on an “interesting mystery protagonist” census form, but Holt makes it all work, and Hanne’s dark attitude makes for several surprisingly witty moments.

The suspects are just as fascinating, from brooding teenager Adrian to little-person doctor Magnus to mountain man Geir. Holt sketches in nearly two dozen characters in a handful of words, and she’s capable of suggesting they’re much more than just suspects, even when they function as nothing else. Red herrings abound, like in any good murder mystery, and the plotting goes flat here and there, but it’s wholly enjoyable to just spend time with Hanne and this unlikely rogues’ gallery.