I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, but here are a few books I’ve read that, while not knock-your-socks-off amazing, ticked at least many of the boxes.
Anne Holt In Dust and Ashes (Scribner, 2018)
This is the tenth and final volume in the Hanne Willhelmsen series. As usual, she puts her prickly wheelchair-bound detective into a tricky plot, or rather two of them: a suicide that might actually be a murder, and a murder that perhaps wasn’t. The death that police believe to have been a suicide is that of a right-wing extremist celebrity who has been hounded by the media. Hanne thinks the psychology is all wrong for that particular woman to have taken her own life, and she wants her eccentric police detective sidekick Henrik Holme to look into it. (Perhaps it was me, but I found this part of the story confusing and not terribly engaging.) Meanwhile, another retired detective has given Henrik a case: he thinks he put an innocent man in prison for murdering his wife years ago. They had grown estranged after their small daughter ran into the street and was struck by a car and killed during a moment when her father was distracted. In the meanwhile, in a disturbing and powerful plot line that man, now out of prison, has grown obsessed with the driver’s granddaughter and begins to plan an action that seems to have wandered out of one of Karin Fossum’s moral psycho-dramas. You find yourself saying “oh no, no, don’t do that” quite often. To be perfectly honest, I’ve grown a little tired of Hanne and her irritable brilliance, but I’ve enjoyed other books by Anne Holt and look forward to whatever else she writes.
Gunnar Staalesen Big Sister (Orenda Books, 2018)
There are things I like a lot about Varg Veum, Staalesen’s long-running PI hero. He’s somewhat modeled on the American hardboiled tradition – a tarnished hero who goes down mean streets, cracking wise – but he’s also Norwegian, so instead of being a former cop, he’s a former social worker. That said, I’ve never totally clicked with this series, and I’m not sure why. This was as enjoyable an entry as any I’ve read. Varg has a client who wants him to take on a missing persons case. But it turns out she, herself, is a bit of a missing person – a half-sister he never knew he had. The missing girl is her god-daughter, and she has vanished after moving to the big city. She had previously sought out her estranged father, who turns out to be a piece of work as Varg retraces her steps. There’s a biker gang and an act of violence to be uncovered from the past, a murder or two, and another family surprise for Varg before it’s all over.
Alex Dahl The Boy at the Door (Berkley 2018)
Set in Norway, and quite Nordic Noir in feeling, this novel is not a translation but is by an American born in Oslo and educated in the UK who lives, at least some of the time, in the picturesque town of Sandefjord, the setting of the novel. Told in the first person in more than one voice, it’s an intensely psychological story that reminds me a bit of reading Quicksand–one of the narrators is wealthy, entitled, and terribly annoying. “Here in Sandefjord we have everything” she tells us early on. “Or, rather, we don’t–and that’s my point exactly. We don’t have any of the undesirable components that make life so unpalatable in many other places: pollution, poverty, property crises, excessive crime, immigration issues–I could go on.” When she goes to pick a daughter up at the town’s swimming pool, the attendant asks her to run a little boy home. His mother has apparently forgotten to pick him up and they’re closing. She crossly agrees, but the place he points her to is no place for a child. It’s an abandoned house deep in the woods and seems to have been used by squatters. Rather than go to the trouble of taking him to the authorities, she takes him home for the night and plans to drop him off at school the next day; let school deal with it. But that dodge doesn’t work out, and when social services has trouble finding a foster home for him, her soft-hearted but mostly absent husband volunteers to take him in. Some of the story is told from the perspective of the boy himself, and some from a drug-addicted prostitute whose letters and journal explain how he ended up in Sandefjord, all leading into the past of the smug, self-centered woman who has wrapped privilege around her like a blanket to keep out the past. It’s well-written and compelling if a bit melodramatic, but the author has real writing chops to make such an unpleasant character ring true and at times even a little bit sympathetic.