Anne Holt, Death in Oslo

(Cross-posted from my personal blog.)

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.

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6 thoughts on “Anne Holt, Death in Oslo

  1. That’s about the most readable piece I’ve read from Malclom Gladwell! I know what he means about profiling being in effect educated guesswork – and is probably most effective in its ability to sort through a mass of data to look for similarities? Intersting what he writes about the character of Jack Crawford from Silence of the Lambs – in the previous (far superior) book, Red Dragon, Jack is a sort of sidekick to Will Farrell, who is a profiler who operates more by sense and instinct – identification with the criminal by visiting the crime scenes, etc. Harris dropped this hinted-at mystical approach for the more down to earth Jack Crawford method. Inicidentally, Simon Beckett’s last book but one was mostly set in Tennessee, about the body farm there, and arose from the author’s visit and interviews with some famous real-life profiler, not sure if the same one that Gladwell discusses.

    I agree about Anne Holt – her books do have a hefty dose of coincidence, but I think they are intelligent and different. Her new one, Fear Not, is worth reading for its perspective on international terrorism, again there is a strong US element.

  2. Anne Holt is a fine writer, but I tend to feel sorry for all the English readers who have not had the chance to read her first many novels featuring Hanne Wilhelmsen. They seemed very new and refreshing in the 90s.

  3. I read another book in the series, after this one, which I liked quite a lot. I am awaiting 1222 from the library, and will probably end of purchasing Fear Not.

    I’d like to read the earlier books with Hanne Wilhelmsen, just my cup of tea, but unfortunately, not available in English. Maybe a publisher will wake up and translate and republish them, but I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Anne Holt is the worst writer I’ve had the misfortune to read. I suffered through only 200 pages of “1222” and just couldn’t read it anymore. It was so confusing and disjointed and jumbled that I actually got a headache from trying to read it. No character development, shallow plot, (if that was a plot) and the poorest excuse for believable character behavior. Utter nonsense! She is a terrible writer. Only exceeded by Iris Johansen in written crap.

  5. Pingback: Death in Oslo by Anne Holt – Ms. Wordopolis Reads

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