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Posts Tagged ‘Norway’

HELL FIRE by Karin Fossum: Book Review

Hell Fire is one of the five best mysteries I’ve read this year.  In fact, I would remove the genre qualifier and say it’s one of the five best novels I’ve read this year.

The protagonist, Police Inspector Konrad Sejer, works in a small community outside Oslo.  The crime has Sejer shaken as he has never been before.  Two corpses are found in a broken-down trailer on a farm.  The victims are a woman, Bonnie Hayden, and a child, possibly hers, although there’s no identification for the youngster.  Looking at the child’s body, clothed in a sweatsuit, bloodied and with multiple knife wounds, it’s impossible for the inspector to tell its sex.

The story goes back and forth between two sets of people.  We first meet Eddie Malthe and his mother Mass.  Eddie is twenty-one, an overweight young man with developmental delays who is unable to hold even a menial job.  His mother takes care of him with total devotion and patience, but since they’re alone in the world she worries what will happen to him when she dies.

Mass has told her son that his father left them when Eddie was a young boy.  Eddie doesn’t really remember the man, whom his mother has told him died years earlier after starting another family in Copenhagen, but he has a photo of him hanging in his bedroom that he looks at every night.  His obsession is to get enough information from his mother to allow him to find his father’s grave so that he may lay flowers on it, and he never tires of asking her to do this.

Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her young son, also live by themselves.  She works as a home health aide for a charity that services the elderly and disabled, always being given the most difficult cases because of her gentle and caring behavior.  Her life isn’t an easy one, but the love and strong bond between mother and child make things a bit easier.

As Sejer questions Bonnie’s best friend, the clients she visits on a weekly basis, the farmer on whose land the trailer was located, and her parents, he can find no one with any animosity toward her, no reason for the deaths of this mother and her child.  But someone must be hiding something.

Karin Fossum’s writing is flawless, and the characters she writes about are totally realistic.  There’s a wonderful interview with her in the online British magazine Independent, in which she talks about her outlook on life and her writing.  She tells the interviewer that she is no good with plots (something which with I definitely disagree), so she concentrates on “the yearnings of life’s also-rans, and how fragile minds fracture when seclusion or routine is disturbed.”

Hell Fire is a moving, tragic story of lives on parallel tracks that must inevitably collide.  It’s a must-read for its look into the hearts and minds of people who do things with the best of intentions, only to see them lead to death and destruction.

You can read more about Karin Fossum at many sites on the web; the interview mentioned above may be found at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/karin-fossum-i-knew-a-murderer-i-knew-the-victim-too-1739894.html.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

COLD HEARTS by Gunnar Staalesen: Book Review

I don’t think of Bergen, Norway as a place with a lot of criminal activity.  But there’s apparently enough crime and abuse to keep private detective Varg Veum busy.

Varg has just recovered from a life-threatening attack, one which killed his client, and he’s still feeling a bit vulnerable.  So when he’s approached by Hege Jensen, his son’s childhood friend, he’s wary of taking her on as a client, especially given the case she wants him to investigate.

Hege’s friend Maggi Monsen has been missing for three days.  Hege won’t go to the police, she tells Varg, because “…you know how they treat cases like this when it’s about people like me and Maggi.”  By “people like me and Maggi,” Hege means prostitutes.  Varg is forced to agree with her assessment, so a bit reluctantly he sets out to search for the missing woman.

Varg’s first action shows him the dangers surrounding the two women.  He gets the key to Maggi’s apartment from Hege, but aside from a small photo album he finds nothing of interest there.  He’s about to leave when he hears a key inserted into the lock and two men enter.  They present themselves as the owners of Maggi’s apartment, having come for her rent, but it’s obvious to the detective that they are her pimps.  And to underscore their message that finding Maggi is none of Varg’s business, one of the men cuts a sharp line with a knife from Varg’s ear to his collarbone.

Determined not to be stopped by the threats and the attack, Varg finds out that the two men are Kjell Malthus and his knife-wielding assistant, Rolf.  Kjell is a lawyer who runs an investment firm, and Varg finds another connection between Kjell and Maggi besides prostitution.  Maggi’s brother KG has been imprisoned for years for the murder of Kjell’s brother.

Maggi was one of three children of dysfunctional parents: the father was an abusive alcoholic and the mother a depressed, passive woman.  Sent to school without lunch and looking malnourished, the children came to the attention of Bergen’s social services.  But before anything could be done officially, a committee of five friends of the family intervened with the intention of making certain that the children were not removed from their home.  The committee promised to provide food and assistance to the family, anything to keep the family together.  But in the end, given the history of two of the three children, was this the best outcome?

Cold Hearts takes the reader into the seamy side of a small Norwegian city, showing how the strains of child abuse, incest, and hypocrisy follow its victims and its practitioners throughout life.  Not a story for the faint-of-heart, the novel is extremely well-written, with characters and settings that bring the story to life. 

Gunnar Staalesen is a well-known novelist throughout Scandinavia.  A statue of Varg Veum stands outside the Strand Hotel in Bergen; a photo of Gunnar Staalesen and his literary creation are available at this Google web site.

There are several translated sites about the author on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1222 by Anne Holt: Book Review

Retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is on her way back to Oslo from an appointment with a physician when the train she’s riding on is derailed. Fortunately there is only one casualty, but a fierce snowstorm forces the nearly two hundred passengers to take shelter in the Finse railroad hotel adjoining the tracks.

Confined to a wheelchair after an arrest that went wrong, Hanne is anxious to return home and not anxious to get involved with any of the other passengers or hotel staff.  But when one of the passengers, the Reverend Cato Hammer, is found murdered the morning after the group’s arrival, Hanne is involved whether she wants to be or not.

As might be expected on a train, there are all types of passengers:  a group of Norwegian churchmen, a cult-like author, doctors who were attending a conference, families with young children, a Muslim couple who keep their distance from the other passengers, a teenage boy traveling alone, a goth-type young woman he follows around, and a physician who suffers from dwarfism.

The chapters in the novel are each prefaced by a number on the Beaufort Scale, ranging from 0-12, indicating the strength of the snowstorm raging outside.  The scale in the novel goes from calm to hurricane, as the storm and the emotions of the people trapped inside the hotel get increasingly violent.

Although the passengers are protected from the elements and have more than sufficient food and drink, time begins to weigh heavily on them, and by the end of the second day Reverend Hammer is not the only murder victim.  So almost against her will Hanne is drawn into the mystery.

The title, 1222, refers to the location of the Finse railroad station, 1222 meters above sea level.  Although Norway certainly has its share of snowstorms, this is one for the record books, and no cars or planes or helicopters are able to transport the passengers home.

The idea of a group of people away from their homes and unable to return for weather-related reasons certainly is not new to mysteries. Just think And Then There Were None.   But 1222 is given a new twist by the voice of its narrator Hanne.

Hanne Wilhelmsen is a prickly heroine. She has a female partner and they have a young daughter, both of whom Hanne loves very much.  But she obviously is uncomfortable spending time with so many strangers, and she notes frequently how she prefers to be left alone and doesn’t want the help that people offer.  She’d rather be uncomfortable and even in pain than have to ask for assistance.  As she says, “The most important thing about the wheelchair is that it creates distance.”

Anne Holt has been writing the Hanne Wilhelmsen series since the 1990s, but her earlier books are very hard to come by in the United States. Hopefully, the success of 1222 will cause her publisher to reissue the earlier novels in this series.

Although I couldn’t find a dedicated author’s page, Anne Holt has a wonderful interview in The Guardian.