Anne Holt has been described as ‘the next Stieg Larsson’, which appears to be a label attached to every Scandinavian crime writer these days. She probably has a very good chance of becoming the next Stieg Larsson, not least because her publishers are putting a huge push behind this novel, with further translations to arrive in 2011. Holt not only has eight novels in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series behind her, she also has a second series, the Vik / Stubo series, of which there have been four novels to date (latest one published in 2009).
Holt has an insider’s eye for issues of crime and punishment. She worked with the Oslo Police Force from 1988 to 1990, which earned her the right to practice as a lawyer. She started her own law practice in 1994. She served as Minister for Justice from November 1996 until February 1997, a very short period which was ended by illness.
I was initially sceptical about 1222, as it seemed to me to be very derivative. The fact that Hanne is confined to a wheelchair should make her a fascinating character, as she must depend on her cerebral rather than physical efforts in order to impose herself on the situation in which she finds herself. Unfortunately, the character reminded me very much of Ironside, a wheelchair-bound Chief of Detectives who featured in a TV series starring Raymond Burr which ran in the US from 1967 to 1975.
It’s also true that Hanne isn’t the most empathic character I’ve ever read. A reclusive character, she neither seeks nor celebrates human contact other than that of her lesbian partner Nefis and her beloved daughter Ida. In fact, she actively rebuffs people’s attempts to get to know her, and has withdrawn into herself ever since her accident. It’s fair to say, and something of an understatement, that Hanne does not suffer fools gladly. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, a difficult character to dislike.
Happily (!), the murder of the priest Cato Hammer slowly reawakens Hanne’s old policing instincts, and her experience of being forced into company gradually thaws her frosty nature.
A second murder quickly follows the first, at which point - given the circumstances Hanne and her fellow travellers are in - I started thinking of Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. To be fair, Holt acknowledges this, and goes so far as to reference Christie’s novel on pg 124:
I thought about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.Of course, by pg 124, there are 118 guests locked into the hotel wing with Hanne, so it might have been something of a whopping novel had she engaged with bumping them all off one-by-one …
I immediately tried to dismiss the thought.
And Then There Were None is a story that doesn’t exactly have a happy ending.
Having said all that, it’s more than a month since I’ve read 1222, and it has stayed with me in a way I didn’t expect it to. One factor, I think, is that Holt is particularly strong when it comes to describing the atrocious weather conditions that buffet the hotel, and does a terrific job of enhancing the mounting tension by referencing the ever-worsening weather. In fact, each chapter is prefaced with a reference to the Beaufort Scale, and the impact on the human being of snow-driven winds.
I also found the novel interesting in the way it used the trapped passengers to present a cross-section of Norwegian society, and at times it can read as a kind of social realist critique of Norwegian societal tensions, most of which were new to me. Holt is at times very critical of the Norwegian people, or at least certain aspects of the Norwegian mentality. Her criticisms largely stem from the fact that, according to Hanne Wilhelmsen at least, Norwegians can be docile sheep, but can be moved from docility to hysteria in a very short period of time. This, to be fair, is probably an accurate criticism of any group of any one nationality.
The passengers do embrace a wide swathe of society. There are priests, and some older, religiously inclined, lay people. There are businessmen, a teenage sports team, and a group of older teenagers on their way to a rock concert. There are a few foreign nationals. There are doctors, on their way to a conference. There are also some locals trapped in the hotel, including the manager, a lawyer, and a mountain man. There is a feminist TV personality. All told, Holt appears to have covered quite a few of society’s bases. Few of the minor characters behave admirably in times of crises.
There’s also a strong religious thread running through the novel, and particularly a theme of discredited religious institutions, which offers another layer to the conventions of Hanne attempting to discover who the murderer is. The two priests in the novel, Cato Hammer and Roar Hanson, both end up murdered. Early on, there are blatant signs that the clergy is not universally respected. A teenager, Adrian, swears forcefully at one of the priests in public, and yet he is not overly rebuked for his action. In general, the clergy and their small flock are more to be tolerated and pitied than admired.
Equally interesting is the minor character Kari Thue, particularly in terms of her ability to foment fear and discord, and her representation of right-wing intolerance. Hanne herself is fascinated with the character of Kari Thue. She despises what Thue stands for, as the minor TV and media celebrity gathers around her a small retinue and protests about the living conditions - by which she means, implicitly, the fact that she’s expected to share space with two characters who are believed to be Muslim, possibly Kurdish (and again, religious tensions surface). In fact, Hanne so despises Kari Thue that she finds herself wishing that Thue had murdered Cato Hammer, and begins to bend the facts in order to point the finger of blame at Thue.
Hanne Wilhelmsen’s lesbian partner, incidentally, is a practicing Muslim called Nefis. There’s a very nice long paragraph on pg 145 which describes Nefis’ beliefs, which begins:
For Nefis, Islam is the strict love of her father and the sound of the soles of her brothers’ shoes on the floor as they laughed and chased her around the palatial house where she grew up …Overall, 1222 is a solid example of the reluctant detective protagonist in crime fiction, even if Hanne Wilhelmsen a little too derivative for my liking (although I did get the impression that Holt was paying homage to the conventions of the classic mystery novel). Holt is also a little too fond of strewing red herrings through the story - the sub-plot about the mysterious men in black on a floor overhead is unnecessary, for example. The writing itself is workmanlike, although that may well be as a result of its translation than Holt’s own style, while the backdrop to the novel, the glimpse we catch of a cross-section of Norwegian society and how it behaves under pressure, is actually more interesting than the main plot itself. - Declan Burke