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by Anne Holt and Marlaine Delargy, trans.
Scribner, December 2011
313 pages
ISBN: 1451634714

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Anne Holt is a popular Norwegian author of two series, one featuring detective Adam Stubo and FBI-trained profiler Johanna Vik, the other with protagonist Hanne Wilhelmsen, a retired Oslo detective who has been wheelchair bound after being shot in the spine. Until now, four books in the Stubo/Vik series have been available in English, with Hanne Wilhelmsen making a cameo appearance in DEATH IN OSLO, stealing every scene she is in. With 1222, the prickly, irritable, and thoroughly entertaining misanthrope takes center stage as narrator of a cold-weather locked room mystery.

As the train from Oslo to Bergen climbs above the treeline and over the mountains, it derails and the engineer is killed. Fortunately, the accident happened close to Finse 1222, a hotel that for a hundred years has weathered storms and welcomed guests who enjoy summer mountain cycling and winter sports. As staff from the hotel rescue the passengers, who have suffered minor injuries that can be treated by the doctors among them, a blizzard begins to blow, and soon they are trapped, cut off from the world.

Hanne, who rarely ventures out of her house, finds herself forced into an uncomfortably social situation and makes the best of it by turning her powers of observation to the group. When a loquacious minister is found outside in the snow, murdered, she has no desire to investigate and assumes the police will soon arrive and sort it out. But then his anxious colleague who seems to be carrying a secret is murdered, and the blizzard worsens. To add to the mystery, a private car had been added onto the train before it departed Oslo and, after the wreck, its inhabitants are whisked into a private room, with armed guards standing watch. A bossy woman whose tirades against immigrants has won her an entourage of fans is inflaming passions within the group. A quiet couple whom Hanne assumes are Kurdish mostly keep to themselves, though in a moment of danger she sees they are both armed and not what they seem.

Holt does a marvelous job of evoking the brutal winter storm and the mounting stress of being trapped among strangers in an isolated place. The resourceful hotel manager and kitchen staff manage to keep their guests as comfortable as possible, but there is an undercurrent of panic just barely held in check. The hotel (which is a genuine historic site located 1222 meters above sea level) provides an evocative setting for a classic locked room mystery. But Holt has a habit of adding something extra. In this case, the presence of the mystery guest and the dodgy behavior of the two ostensibly Muslim characters (who speak to one another in a language that Hanne cannot identify) lead up to a double ending: a classic summing up scene, during which red herrings are dealt with and the killer revealed by the detective, followed by a dramatic twist that throws in a wild and unresolved conspiracy theory. Though the two genres may seem incompatible, they actually cross paths throughout the story whenever a question that is bubbling just below the surface comes up: what does it mean to be Norwegian today?

Though the rather improbable conclusion may annoy readers who prefer a less fanciful plot, 1222 is an intriguing introduction to a smart and compelling character whose acerbic observations about Norwegian society make her interesting company in a very cold place.

A final word of caution for American readers: the publisher has decided to include a teaser for a forthcoming book, an unusual marketing move for a hardcover publication. Though the fact that the publisher plans to bring out translations of earlier volumes in this series is welcome news, it's frustrating to come to an abrupt end when expecting another twenty or thirty pages of story development. You have been warned.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, February 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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