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by Anne Holt and Anne Bruce, trans.
Scribner, June 2013
362 pages
ISBN: 1451634803

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

American readers who have met Norwegian detective Hanne Wilhelmsen most likely encountered her first in 1222, a cold-weather homage to Agatha Christie which stranded a motley group of travelers in a blizzard on top of a Norwegian mountain. There Hanne, an embittered and wheelchair-bound ex-detective, reluctantly investigates a murder. Or, if they have been reading Anne Holt's excellent Johanna Vik and Adam Stubo series, they may have encountered that reclusive, acerbic investigator in a cameo appearance in DEATH IN OSLO. Regardless, patient readers now have English translations of the earliest police procedurals with Hanne Wilhelmsen in the lead, DEATH OF THE DEMON being the third, originally published in 1995. (Four books leading up to 1222 are not yet translated.)

As in 1222, the setting is claustrophobic and the circle of suspects limited, but Hanne is young and energetic, and her career is on the fast track. In fact, she has advanced to the point that she should be spending more time as an administrator than as an investigator but she's impatient to get out into the field with her foul-mouthed and entertaining subordinate, Billy T., to discover who stabbed the vinegary and vindictive director of a children's home as she sat at her desk.

The police need to find Olaf, a troubled twelve-year-old boy who has recently run away after being placed at the children's home when social services determined that his mother was unable to manage him. Though Hanne is reluctant to suspect a child of murder, he may know something and could be in danger himself.

We learn about Olaf and his difficult childhood through passages interspersed throughout the short novel, some from Olav's perspective, many of them in the voice of his hapless mother, who was unable to control her grossly overweight and erratically violent child, but who has no social network to call on for help. We learn a bit more about Hanne, who is resisting her partner's wish to have a child, an issue that parallels the thematic investigation of what society does with children who break all the rules and are hard to love.

Holt, who has a background in law and briefly served as Norway's Minister of Justice, is keenly interested in issues of equality and social welfare. Here, she builds a fairly simple mystery (who killed the director of the children's home?) around a much more complicated one: can children be responsible for violent crimes? What is society's duty toward children with severe behavioral problems? Though we learn the identity of the killer (with one of the author's typical last-minute twists), Holt leaves the larger mystery unsolved.

The pacing in the novel is uneven, few of the characters (including Hanne) are particularly appealing, and the social commentary provided in the voice of Olav's mother might make the reader wonder at times if the manuscript was accidentally mixed up with a social worker's case files. The problems Olav faces and those he creates for everyone around him are described without sentimentality, which at times taxes readers' sympathies. Toward the end, the pace picks up, we're allowed to see briefly what the world looks like to a boy whose life is vexingly difficult before the author gently refuses to give us a tidy feel-good resolution. Though this is not one of the author's strongest books, in the end Anne Holt does what she always does. She leaves us thinking.

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

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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