SinC25, #8: Anne Holt

December 20, 2011

For some odd reason I put off reading Norwegian author Anne Holt. I suspect it was because the books that were translated first into English featured an FBI-trained profiler, and I am rather allergic to FBI-trained profilers. (My favorite depiction of them was the case of two duelling and equally fatuous profilers in Jess Walter’s Over Tumbled Graves, an excellent novel that investigates our obsession with serial killers. Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell’s article about profilers in The New Yorker – as skeptical as I am. So even though every interview with the author that I came across made me think “I like how this writer thinks!” I never picked up one of her books – until I recently read Death in Oslo. And enjoyed it tremendously.

Death in Oslo, the third in a series featuring the profiler Johanne Vik, starts with an intriguing premise. A woman has just been elected president of the United States, and as the book opens we learn that she has triumphed in spite of closely-guarded personal secret. In fact the book opens with her thought: I got away with it. But of course, she hasn’t, really. Her first foreign trip is to a safe country, the home of her ancestors, Norway. But the unthinkable happens. Madame President disappears – on the 17th of May, of all days, Norway’s independence day and an occasion for raucous partying. Johanne is upset when her partner, Adam Stubo, is drafted to work on the crisis. Johanne has her reasons to avoid the FBI agent who is working on the case. She takes their small daughter with her to a secret retreat, the apartment of her mentor, wheelchair-bound Hanne Wilhelmsen (who features in a series that has mostly not been translated yet except for 1222). As Adam deals with the public side of the investigation, Johanne and Hanne come into it via a different route. And all the while, the reader knows who is behind the disappearance. We just don’t know how he pulled it off – or why.

Death in Olso is great fun. It’s a complex story with a lot of characters from all over the world, but Holt draws them so skillfully that it’s no trouble keeping them apart. She also does a nice line in puzzles and keeps us guessing, right up to the end – and even then, things aren’t tied up neatly. There is a whacking great coincidence on which much of the story hinges, but as hinges go, it’s not squeaky and moves very smoothly. I particularly enjoyed the consternation of Norwegian officials when the unthinkable happens, and the contrast between their response and that of American security agencies.  All in all, it’s terrifically entertaining and is peopled with memorable characters I would like to meet again.

Now, as for three more women writers who are in some way similar – oof, this is always hard . . .

  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir – who also creates likeable characters with interesting personal lives and also likes puzzles in her plots.
  • Minette Walters – who combines intricate plots with social and political issues.
  • Liza Cody – who creates memorable characters with a feminist edge and a lot of compassion.

It’s not too late to join the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Book Bloggers Challenge at either the easy, moderate, or expert challenge (or, if you’re a triathlete like Maxine, all three). The deadline is whenever. I will eventually collate all of the posts in one gigantic listing. I know I’ve discovered some new writers thanks to others who have taken the challenge. And though she probably doesn’t know about the challenge, Anne Holt herself has made a list of her ten favorite female detectives for The Guardian.