Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: In Dust and Ashes by Anne Holt tr. Anne Bruce

In Dust and Ashes by Anne Holt translated by Anne Bruce, November 2017, 400 pages, Corvus, ISBN: 1782398821

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

Oslo, Norway: January 2016
Kjell Bonsaksen is looking forward to his retirement from the police and his move to Provence. Squeezing ketchup onto the hot dog, he glances through the window towards the petrol pumps as a man approaches the entrance doors. Their eyes meet and Bonsaksen freezes mid-bite. The man fills his cup at the coffee dispenser and as he passes Bonsaksen, he softly says: “You knew I was innocent. You did nothing.”

Oslo: December 2001

Jonas has continuously recalculated the chronology: if he hadn’t had that extra coffee; if he hadn’t cut his hand and allowed little Dina to bandage it; if he hadn’t fumbled the keys or stopped to sort out the junk mail in the mailbox; those misplaced seconds that led to the fatal timing of a little girl running out into the road and stumbling. He had screamed as he tried to push the wheel of the car from his daughter’s body and he had screamed “My fault” at the bewildered driver, “Mine.”

Oslo: January 2016
Henrik Holme is blocked and jostled by the waiting crowd of journalists as he pushes Hanne’s wheelchair out of the courtroom. Flash photography and shouted questions gradually subside as the journalists examine their phones; the news of the death of Iselin Havorn has pushed the Extremist Trial’s verdict off their agenda.

These days Henrik has his own office and reports to Chief Inspector Sorensen. From seven in the morning until ten at night, he shuttles between this office and his mentor Hanne's apartment, should she need him. Now it is evening and he is staring despondently at his empty in-tray when a burly man darkens the doorway and places an old blue ring-binder on his desk, insisting that Henrik and Hanne look into the case.

Henrik explains that he cannot take a case unless it is referred by the Chief, no matter how much he sympathises over a criminal getting away. The man interrupts, “He didn’t get away,” and tells Henrik that he, Superintendent Bonsaksen, cannot enjoy his retirement until … well. The man was convicted and served time. He never fought the charge of killing his wife. But Bonsaksen always doubted the verdict. When, the other day, he bumped into the man – his eyes were … dead. That man lost everything, Bonsaksen tells Henrik. Jonas Abrahamsen deserves another chance.

Confined to a wheelchair, Hanne Wilhelmsen advises the Oslo police on cold cases from the apartment she shares with her wife and daughter and is assisted by Detective Henrik Holme, a talented but isolated investigator. Hanne is between official cases when she becomes obsessed with the suicide of wealthy businesswoman and blogger Iselin Havorn. Havorn (meaning Sea Eagle) was a successful Marxist-Leninist journalist who, after becoming ill with what she decided was mercury poisoning and electromagnetic sensitivity, had turned towards alternative cures, an alternative lifestyle, conspiracy theories and eventually right-wing nationalism. Her wealth had been founded upon business interests in her wife’s herbal cure company. Recently she became notorious when unmasked as the writer of a virulently racist blog and her sudden death with its suicide note is a media sensation. But Hanne cannot believe that a woman such as Havorn would have killed herself.

Meanwhile Henrik becomes equally concerned by the guilty verdict that convicted Jonas Abrahamsen of the murder of his wife on New Year’s Eve two years after their daughter’s death. The couple were divorcing and Henrik thinks that the traumatised man’s mistake had been to deny visiting his wife on that New Year’s Eve. When Jonas was identified as the figure on the path in the background of a neighbour’s party photograph, with no other suspect in the shooting of his ex-wife, he was convicted. With no fight left in him to appeal, he went to prison for eight years.

Now Henrik and Hanne are at odds with each other. Each is convinced that their cases need investigation, each disagrees with the other’s preoccupation but neither have official permission to investigate. Then everything, it appears, must be put on hold when the child of a national lottery winner is abducted.

IN DUST AND ASHES is described by its publisher as the tenth and “final instalment” in Anne Holt’s “Hanne Wilhelmsen” crime series. An undoubted giant of Nordic crime fiction, Holt has a fine reputation and a host of fans. I have failed to keep up with Hanne since the earlier novels – not following her as a character and the twists, turns and shooting that have led to her confinement to a wheelchair. Nor have I got to know Henrik Holme until now. Therefore I’ll admit to finding the going a bit difficult. The novel unfolds from the working relationship of Hanne and Henrik. Hanne appears to be withdrawing from all social contact other than with Henrik and her family whilst Henrik struggles to modify his compulsive tics and obsessions and to draw closer to “fitting in”. As the plot throws it spotlight on Jonas – it seems as if most of this book’s characters are expressing psychological misery and alienation (with due cause you could say) and this leaves me with the uneasy feeling that Holt has become the queen of bleak. Except for the happy retiree Bonsaksen, whose insistence on re-examining the murder conviction of Jonas provides the impetus for unfolding an ingenious puzzle of a plot.

A thorough police procedural and a tour de force in character study and plotting, IN DUST AND ASHES eventually develops suspense and pace and hurtles towards its ending. But it left me unsure of my feelings about it all. I don’t mind my Nordic Noir being dark but I’m not too sure of almost (and I do say almost) relentlessly bleak.

Lynn Harvey, November 2017

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