Sunday, 6 March 2011

1222: Anne Holt

In keeping with the usual trend of "Oh look, thing X is popular, go find lots of other things like it", we're drowning at the moment in Scandinavian crime novelists. Because Stieg Larsen has been a mega-success, publishers are translating gloomy scandiwegian crime epics into English at a rate for which I can think of neither metaphor nor precedent. I had no idea there were so many Scandinavian crime writers, but from what I can see, if all their works had been TRUE crime books, Scandinavia would have about four people left in it, all frantically phoning the police for protection.

One of the more unlikely beneficiaries from this is Anne Holt, who's apparently been creating a world of hurt for Norwegians since the mid-nineties. with a short break in the middle to serve for a couple of months as Minister for Justice. That must have been pretty weird for her civil servants.

Anyhow, the vagaries of this lunatic translation program have led to the rather bonkers situation that the first Anne Holt book to hit the English speaking world is the most recent one, so that new readers are wrestling with a character at the wrong end of a bunch of character development. Serial detective protagonists come in two varieties, the ones who don't change no matter what happens, and have no personal lives to speak of, and the ones with far too much personal life and a tendency to become progressively more damaged as time goes by. In defiance of all common sense, the second kind are usually WORSE written. Anne Holt's Hanne Wilhelmson is, I think, supposed to be annoying by design, but eight books in I suspect she's a lot more annoying now than she was originally intended to be, and she's most annoying just where I imagine Holt believes she's most interesting.

Authors tend to fall in love with their successful characters and gradually tweak their foibles to the point of caricature; Robert B Parker's Spenser became more and more unbearably pretentious and politically correct the longer the series went, and Colin Dexter's Morse moved from a plausible curmudgeon to an entirely implausible middle-aged sex-god the longer John Thaw's TV version filed the rough edges off the paper original. The less said about Kay Scarpetta the better, except that she's kind of the patient zero of the deeply annoying detective protagonist who functions as a walking public service announcement for whatever is bugging the writer at the time. This infection has spread, I'm sad to tell you, to Norway.

We meet Hanne Wilhelmson on the train, where she's a cranky old lady (except that she's a cranky old lady who's younger than me, and this cannot stand) on her way to get some treatment for her back. Which got all shot up in an earlier case, confining her to a wheelchair. 1222 is like the mother of all spoilers; it was written for the loyal audience who's been following the character for years, and it's full of callouts to earlier cases (including a fourthwall breaking reference to the US president staying in Hanne's apartment - talk about bludgeoning disbelief) and of course the spoileriffic "Well here I am in a wheelchair." elements which are going to make it pretty damned hard to read the earlier books once they come out in English. The train crashes, everyone gets stuck in a hotel, and then murder breaks out. As it does. Although Wilhelmson's been retired since the whole wheelchair thing, she's got the curse of Poirot and murder do be following her about for no good reason.

Mind you, it's a surprisingly well put together book. It romps along efficiently, and while I found lots of Holt's opinions entirely self righteous and irritating, the insights into ordinary stuff are nicely done and she sketches in her main cast efficiently and well. About half way through I got curious about whether Finse, the locale of the book, is a real place, and was surprised to discover that it is, and that Holt was describing the unlikely venue of a hotel in a town with no access other than by train entirely accurately. Or that Wikipedia is lying to me. The murders are engagingly low key and for once didn't involve child abuse by anyone at all, which was a relief. I don't think they're set up entirely fairly, but to some extent 1222 is Holt grumbling along through her chosen mouthpiece about how tough life is in a wheelchair, with a murder or two thrown in on the side because that's what people have come to expect. It's not at all bad, which was a relief because I'd bought it on spec as a birthday present for my sister and it would have been embarrassing if it had been crap. But I honestly can't see myself checking out any of the other books. Having seen how annoying the main character gets, I don't feel like getting to know her any better.


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