I’ve got a confession to make. I’m not really into Nordic noir. I don’t share the voracious appetite most readers in the Western world seem to have for Scandinavian crime. The novels of Jo Nesbø and his ilk leave me cold (pun intended).
Still, a prejudice has no substance unless tested now and then. So I recently agreed to review Death of the Demon by Anne Holt, an author dubbed ‘the Godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction’ by Nesbø himself.
Death of the Demon concerns the stabbing death of Agnes Vestavik, fortysomething director of one of Norway’s few residential facilities for children, the Spring Sunshine Foster Home. Among the murder suspects is 12 year old Olav Håkonsen, who had earlier frightened Agnes with the hatred in his eyes.
However, as the police under the leadership of Chief Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen dig deeper, an increasing number of potential suspects are unearthed. And as with the best whodunnits, the plot contains enough twists, turns, false leads and feasible alternatives to keep the reader guessing.
Death of the Demon belongs in Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series. Not having read any other books in the series didn’t prevent me from being able to pick up this novel and engage with the characters — the highly intuitive investigator and reluctant leader Hanne, her tough but tender sidekick Billy T, and their colleagues — as they attempt to discover who in Agnes’ circle might be driven to kill her.
A vivid sense of place, convincing characters, and great suspense make Death of the Demon a riveting read.
It struck me about halfway through that Anne Holt writes like a modern-day Agatha Christie. Not that Death of the Demon is by any means a cosy crime novel — it’s too bloody for that — but the puzzle Holt presents is worthy of Christie.
(Turns out this is not an original observation: the Daily Mirror described another book in Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series as ‘a bit like a mash-up of Stieg Larsson, Jeffery Deaver and Agatha Christie.’ While I’ve written elsewhere about the cynical ploy of using Stieg Larsson’s name to sell books, the comparison with Deaver and Christie has validity).
Despite my indifference to Nordic noir, I found this novel a compelling read and really enjoyed it, right up until the last six pages. I don’t want to spoil what I’m sure other readers will find a satisfying denouement, but for me, there was one twist too many.
I suspect my disappointment with the ending of what is otherwise a terrific novel reflects my growing intolerance for fiction that ultimately attributes criminality to individual pathology.
But that’s nothing compared to how I feel about the ever more brutal violence against women in crime fiction. Stay tuned for more on this topic.
Death of the Demon by Anne Holt (© 1995, English translation 2013) is published by Corvus, distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin.
Tune into Radio National Books and Arts Daily 10.30 AM-ish Wednesday 6 November 2013 (Australian EST) to hear my review of Death of the Demon.