Review: Death of the Demon

Death of the DemonI’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.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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18 Responses to Review: Death of the Demon

  1. Yes, I so agree with you about the “ever more brutal violence against women in crime fiction”. Much of it seems there mainly to titillate those who are titillated by such things (and there are many, obviously).

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  2. I’m with you, Angela on the Nordic love affair and, well, you know where I stand on the subject of brutalised women. That being said, I *would* recommend the godmother & father of Nordic noir – Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten book Martin Beck series, written between 1965-75. They planned it as a novel in ten parts and it really does benefit from being read in order. It’s quite a fascinating period piece. They were journos and American crime noir impressed them as a form to explore social and cultural questions. The series is basically a Marxist critique of Sweden as it was becoming more and more affluent.

    There’s been a new printing of the series, Michael Ondaatje writes the intro for the 1st book!

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    • angelasavage says:

      Funny you should mention Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Pam. You’re not the only one to recommend them. Andrew just got hold of a couple of their novels at an op shop. While he bought them primarily for the great seventies photographic covers, he’s decided to read them and I thought I would, too.

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  3. Khim says:

    Angela,
    I’m curious – what is a satisfying denouement to you as a writer/reader ? What else do you think criminality could be attributed to ?

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    • angelasavage says:

      That’s a great question, Khim. I think criminality can be attributed to many factors, occasionally pathology, but more often to poverty and (poor) education. Of course, I’m not alone in thinking this. By extension, I like reading crime fiction that sheds light on social and political issues and social justice. I get tired of stories that depict perpetrators as monsters — or in this case, demons.

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  4. Angela – I couldn’t agree more about brutality against women. I must admit I’m awfully tired of it. And it’s interesting that you would mention individual pathology. That’s got its role in crime fiction, but I tire of that too. Easily. That said though, I do think Anne Holt is very talented and I’m glad that you found a lot to like in this one.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for those comments, Margot. I did think the Anne Holt was very well constructed. And FictionFan’s comments below [spoiler alert] have got me wondering whether I was a bit harsh. I guess the bottom line is that I don’t buy the idea that there are humans and then there are non-human ‘monsters’. I think there are very ill human beings, and certainly both justice and mental health systems can fail these people and their families, leading to monstrous results. But I know many crime writers don’t share my analysis: there’s a passage in Kathy Reichs first novel where one of the cops talks about the serial killer they’ve just put away in terms of an aberration of the species. (I must look up the exact quote).

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  5. I have never read Scandinavian crime fiction but from the reviews I have read I sense a lot of intensity in the fiction which is interesting considering that the Nordic region is said to be one of the most safest and peaceful parts of the world. Thanks for the review, Angela.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Your comment made me smile, Prashant. Agatha Christie had a theory that we read crime fiction to frighten ourselves in a safe way. Maybe those in the Nordic region like to scare themselves with fiction in order to cope with all that peace and safety in real life 😉

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  6. FictionFan says:

    [SPOILER ALERT #1] I’m not a huge fan of Nordic crime either, though I’ve come to realise that I prefer the female Nordic writers to the male – I think because the males aren’t very enlightened when it comes to the characterisation of women. I did enjoy this one very much though – and felt the ‘demon’ was as much a product of environment as pathology to be honest. But I think my view may have been influenced by the fact that I worked in a similar field with troubled children for some years and I felt the way the author handled the whole setting came over as very authentic.

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    • angelasavage says:

      [SPOILER ALERT #2] Thanks for your comments, FictionFan. I hope you don’t mind me adding the spoiler alert.

      Your feedback made me wonder whether I’d been too harsh on Death of the Demon. I agree that there’s a sense of the system having failed the child and his mother. But right from the first, the mother’s voice describes him as a freak, a characterisation echoed in the title and the use of the poem ‘Alone’ by Edgar Allan Poe in the preface.

      But I agree that Holt’s description of the foster home, its residents and its staff was very well done.

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      • FictionFan says:

        [SPOILER ALERT #3] Sorry about the unintentional spoiler!

        Yes, I think we all bring our own experiences to books, though, and having worked with kids like these, I felt the mother’s attitude to the son was the root of the problem and that had he got proper care from an early age, he may have turned out quite differently – but then that’s because in 8 cases out of 10 in real life, the conclusion I would reach would be that the problem originated in poor parenting and/or neglect. I know – blame the parents is about as overused as pathology, but sometimes there’s a reason for a cliche… 🙂

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  7. As I am about a third of the way through this book myself I have only skimmed your review Angela (because I am strange and like to read reviews after I’ve read a book) but I have to comment on the whole “nordic” issue.

    It annoys me no end that Nordic Noir has become a catch phrase because I find it meaningless. For me at any rate the Nordic countries are just another setting & most of the Scandinavian stuff I have read isn’t even close to being noir. I have read quite a bit of stuff from the region though and there is a whole range of sub genres – there’s cosy type stuff like the latter Camilla Lackberg novels, and straight out procedurals (such as the aforementioned Sjowall and Wahloo), and private detectives and amateur sleuths and thrillers and all the rest. Some are good. Some are awful. Most are somewhere in the middle. I don’t think there is anything particularly Scandinvian or Nordic that identifies them all as belonging to a single grouping (aside from the location).

    I admit I started reading books with the setting because they were a change from the American books I was so bored with – I was hearily sick of the endless stream of serial killer storylines and American cops/detectives who solve every second problem they encounter with a gun (UK books too tend to be serial killer laden though they’re less gun-happy) – I’ve gladly expaned into Scandinavia, Africa, Asia and other non US/UK locations for a bit of variety in terms of world view – though it must be said the Scandinavian marketing people are working harder so there is more their stuff out there. For me, in general all books written by non-Americans do tend to be different – there is more focus on ‘normal people’ scenarios where crime happens in the normal course of events (either by accident or design) but generally not because the whole world is populated by raging psycopaths who collect trophies and make suits of human skin as James Patterson and his ilk would have us believe.

    Some of the Scandinavian writers also explore socio-political themes in fascinating way – e.g. Leif G W Persson – and I suppose these do have a more ‘Nordic’ feel to them in that their society and politics are quite different. I am a fan of any crime fiction which does this but it is only a minority of the whole that manages to do it well, whether it be from Scandinavia or anywhere else.

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  8. OK – may have rambled a bit too much there – sorry, meant to go back and edit but pressed Post instead 🙂

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    • angelasavage says:

      No need to apologise, Bernadette. Someone as well read as you is entitled to a lengthy comment now and then 😉

      I appreciate your deconstruction of ‘Nordic Noir’. As you quite rightly point out, it is a brand rather than a genre. I remember Liam McIlvanney and Doug Johnstone saying the same thing of ‘Tartan Noir’ in their panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year (which you can watch here if you’re interested).

      While the setting of a story has some influence over what I choose to read — I have a distinct bias for work set in Asia — I am primarily interested in books that are well written and, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, that shed light on social and political issues. I admit Anne Holt’s book meets both criteria.

      Incidentally, like you, I prefer to read reviews after I’ve read the book, though a good review will inspire me to read something I might not otherwise have considered.

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  9. kathy d. says:

    I have not read this but appreciate this review, although I didn’t expect the spoiler. But it’s okay. I, too, look for books that expose political and social issues behind violent crimes. But I also recognize mental illness and the total inadequacy — at least in the U.S. — of the entire health care, including mental health care, system. The brutal gunning down of children and adults in several settings over here demonstrates the complete breakdown of the mental health system and the prevalence of gun culture and the ease of purchasing guns.
    Why these usually young men are so angry at society and act it out is not something I can explain. But surely, a lot of things are going wrong here, a lot, to result in such terrible violence against innocent people. Is it societal? Familial? Abuse? Religious repression? Mental illness? Or all three causes and more.
    I don’t like serial killer books. That is too easy. I like the old-fashioned mysteries with disgruntled relatives, bosses or employees, accountants, lawyers, neighbors, schoolmates, fights over money, whatever. Far better for me to read complicated crimes without serial murderers. That’s too easy and it doesn’t explain anything to readers.
    And, I, too, wring my hands or silently yell at publishers for the horrific violence against women portrayed in much of crime fiction. The combination of sex and violence, and the confusion therein, is not good. The escalating torture, kidnapping, sexual assaults and murders of women, also called “torture porn” is just awful. I wonder if it’s because there’s a lack of imagination by writers, or that publishers want this to sell books. If so, why is that? Who is reading those type books? And are they sitting next to me on a bus? And if this is appealing, why? is it due to unresolved and growing sexism and misogyny in society? (This is certainly true on U.S. TV and in movies.)
    I remember a few years ago a woman editor at a publishing house refused to edit any more books portraying terrible violence against women. Her article also mentioned mystery covers, where publishers demand the artists show violence against women. Why? Who does this attract?
    Yes. It’s social at the bottom of it. Publishers want to sell books, but why does this work?

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