Friday, 26 November 2010

Book Review: 1222 by Anne Holt


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"1222 metres above sea level, train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered. With the storm showing no sign of abating, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is asked to investigate. But Hanne has no wish to get involved. She has learned the hard way that truth comes at a price and sometimes that price just isn't worth paying. Her pursuit of truth and justice has cost her the love of her life, her career in the Oslo Police Department and her mobility: she is paralysed from the waist down by a bullet lodged in her spine. Trapped in a wheelchair, trapped by the killer within, trapped by the deadly storm outside, Hanne's growing unease is shared by everyone in the hotel. Should she investigate, or should she just wait for help to arrive? And all the time rumours swirl about a secret cargo carried by train 601. Why was the last carriage sealed? Why is the top floor of the hotel locked down? Who or what is being concealed? And, of course, what if the killer strikes again?"

***

I can hardly count how many times I've been perusing a plot synopsis on the back cover of a book, perfectly innocent of what narrative delights may or may not await me within, only to have my experience utterly transformed by Another Goddamn Spoiler. Pivotal twists and late-game revelations - he was a ghost the whole time, don't you know - are given away by overeager copy writers with such alarming regularity that it doesn't even surprise me any more. Besides which, blurbs are notorious for deceptively representing a given narrative, framing a tale just so in spite of the actual facts, the better to hit on all the high points its perceived market demands. It doesn't take a genius to see why. Say there's a vampire in your book. Say he or she could be described as sexy. Instant win: slap "sexy vampire" somewhere in the blurb and the urban fantasy market will lap it up. Maybe they'll come away disappointed when it turns out the sexy vampire in question doesn't do any of the usual sexy vampire things, but if they've already laid down their dollars, so what?

Perhaps I'm hopelessly jaded. No, strike that, I'll do you one better: clearly, I am - the very thought of optimism has me shaking my embittered old bonce. In any event, over the years, I've learned to swallow sales pitches pitching anything you can think to sell with a grain of salt. Whenever I can afford to, I'll avoid them entirely. Up until recently, my reading consisted almost entirely of books by authors I'd read (and enjoyed) before, or books recommended - indeed blurbed - by those authors. These days, I get a lot of new fiction for review, and no-one wants to hear me babble ad infinitum about China Mieville and Guy Gavriel Kay, so everything gets a fair shake. Come rain or shine, I'll do my utmost to read the first few chapters of whatever comes my way. Failing that, loathe though I am to admit as much, there's the blurb. Whenever time is particularly tight or I get something that looks outwith my expertise or distinctly similar to a Stephanie Meyer book, there's the blurb. If the blurb doesn't sell me, that's mostly that, and given my misgivings... well, with the To Be Read stack growing ever more oppressive in size, books along those lines don't often make it out of the slush. 1222 did.

Now I don't read a huge amount of crime fiction, nor will I often pick up a series eight books into its stride, but there was something about the plot synopsis on the back cover of 1222 that made it impossible to overlook, something so undeniably irresistable about its icy twist on the classic locked room murder mystery that I simply had to hear Norway's former Minister for Justice (latterly bestselling author Anne Holt) out. "1222 metres above sea level," so it goes, "train 601 from Oslo to Bergen careens off iced rails as the worst snowstorm in Norwegian history gathers force around it. Marooned in the high mountains with night falling and the temperature plummeting, its 269 passengers are forced to abandon their snowbound train and decamp to a centuries-old mountain hotel. They ought to be safe from the storm here, but as dawn breaks one of them will be found dead, murdered."

Add to that Holt's wheelchair-bound heroine, retired detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, and we have a very interesting protagonist, too, as potentially appealing in her way as the blood-pumping pitch. What a disappointment, then, that - as it happens - that's all there is to 1222: a high concept that goes nowhere and a cardboard cutout of a lead character. Hanne, firstly, never coheres into anything more than a collection of quirks. She's paralysed from the waist down; the trauma has left her bitter and untrusting; she has a natural aptitude for detective work, though of course she wishes otherwise; she has a perverse habit of ending up in situations that demand her unwilling talents; and she's a lesbian, what of it? Hanne spends the entire novel either put-upon or dismissive. Her perspective is thus hopelessly fractured. The actual detective work we're told she's so good at amounts to her sat in a room with a pen and some paper for several chapters. Holt deigns to describe all this to us - without, of course, giving away the huge (and hugely disappointing) reveal before the inevitable Columbo moment.

Which is to say, the bit where the curtain is finally pulled back on the mystery, such as it is, at the procedural heart of 1222. Everyone wants to know: who killed infamous "football priest" Cato Hammer? Well, you'll find out, but don't think the revelation will be at all clever or even satisfying when you do; Hanne's much-vaunted deduction begins and ends, I can exclusively reveal, with a sock. A sock. What little intrigue there is in the interim feels forced and unconvincing. In a setting and a situation that should bleed tension and suspense with little effort, you never sense Hanne is in any danger whatsoever - and the entirety of 1222 is told from her perspective. She's just been delayed by a snowstorm. And we're just stuck in an old hotel with her, while what I believe Holt means to pass off as plot happens.

Perhaps it's something to do with the translation... the prose, whether stilted by design or reinterpretation, is just clumsy enough to jar, so that the reading experience proceeds only in fits and starts. Characters major and minor feel so unnatural as to be tangible in exactly the wrong way. Holt clearly despises the press, and manuevers whomsoever she can in order to deliver such indictments in vitriolic slapdash.

Shall we say, then, that I did not love 1222? I did not - nor did I expect to, if I'm honest. And yet there was promise, there: in the initial plot and Hanne Wilhemsen, Anne Holt offers up - if only momentarily - a narrative and a character so arresting that I was won over almost despite myself. Would that either had lasted beyond the blurb on the back cover.

***

1222
by Anne Holt

UK Publication: December 2010, Corvus
Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

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