Crime Corner

Norwegian Noir with Jerry HoltCrime Corner

Norwegian crime fiction is filled with continuing protagonists, and most have been around long enough to have large followings. I would never miss an installment of Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series—and certainly not of Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum adventures: the melancholy Varg has been my personal favorite for at least a decade now. And, of course, a great advantage of establishing a popular series character is that often a Scandinavian television series or even a big screen movie can loom right around the corner—for better or worse: Actor Trond Espen Seim brought energy and integrity to the role of Varg Veum over a two-year series run—but, of course, Jo Nesbø was not served as well by Michael Fassbinder (not to mention a convoluted mess of a plot) in the feature version of The Snowman.

Anne holt

Photo: Ole Gunnar Onsøien / NTB
Anne Holt used to be Norway’s minister of justice. Now, she writes bestselling crime novels.

Anne Holt (no relation; more’s the pity) has been around a while, and her series about wheelchair-using Hanne Wilhelmsen has garnered enough support to warrant a TV series—in fact the casting would be a lot of fun. Hanne is crusty, abusive, and brilliant, plus she has a same-sex partner and an adopted daughter to add some nice complexity to her story. 

But her greatest asset is the autistic Henrik Holme, who digs into cold cases with the energy of a rabid dog. In Dust and Ashes (2018), the two of them are at their bickering best (and yes, they do bicker and bicker), as they take up two different cases involving death—one cold, and the other extremely hot. 

The cold case is the more interesting. It involves the 2001 hit-and-run death of a 3-year-old child that mushrooms into the imprisonment of her father and her mother’s probable suicide. The other case is current, and it centers on a radical blogger, who also may or may not have killed herself. The real fun here can be found in the parry-and-thrust debates between Hanne and Henrik as they inch toward solutions. Set in part in Oslo, this series conjures both Norwegian culture and landscape in knowing ways that made me homesick for the time I spent there. Ten books are available in the Wilhelmsen series, all meticulously plotted and all well worth your attention.

Jørn Lier Horst is a former senior investigating officer with the Norwegian police, who these days has a hit series on his hands with the William Wisting novels.

Jorn lier horst

Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB
Jørn Lier Horst uses his experiences as an investigating officer for the Norwegian police in his novels.

Indeed, the books do have the ring of authority—the police work is realistic, complete with the occasional stretches of boredom that certainly must occur. Wisting, a widower with a grown daughter, Line, who is a crime reporter, and a son, is a man with integrity, whose collisions with the darkest aspects of crime have left their impression upon him. 

In Ordeal (2016), he follows the twisty path left by a deceased crime boss as some frightening secrets are revealed because of Line’s friendship with the criminal’s granddaughter. A special hook here is the fact that Line is pregnant and close to delivery. Indeed, one of the book’s most harrowing sequences is a subplot in which Wisting has to testify in court and also has to make it to the hospital in time to be his daughter’s delivery coach. 

This premise has been used before, but Horst’s taut narration breathes new life—literally—into its telling. Set in the Larvik area, this series has the advantage of a small town—and thus more intimate—setting and the very welcome presence of a protagonist (two, really—since Line always carries a major plot thread) who never backs down.

stuart macbride

Photo: Tim Duncan / Wikimedia Commons
Scottish author Stuart MacBridge brings a British angle to the Nordic Noir genre.

When I was teaching in Bergen, I attended Sunday services at St. Mary’s Church, whose history goes back to the 1100s. It was (and is; I visited last year) a wonderful congregation—and a very well read one to boot. Like most Norwegians, the St. Mary’s people love their mysteries, including the work of their Scottish neighbors. And, of course, I loved the post-services discussions that we often had about those mysteries. The church had a little lending library, and that is where I first encountered Stuart MacBride’s Aberdeen-set series dealing with Logan McRae, as beaten-down a weary cop as you would ever want to encounter. All That’s Dead (2019), the latest in the series, is quite typical of its

strengths—and, for me, its weaknesses as well.

The story is set in Police Scotland, the central office of the Aberdeen force. McRea has just returned to work after recovering from a near-fatal stab wound. He and his crew get caught up in an investigation into the disappearance of a radical professor, and that leads to several extremely gory sequences in which severed body parts loom large. 

There is also a thread dealing with Scottish Nationalist that slithers through here, one that, to my experience in Scotland, finds trouble where there is none. The story is interesting enough, but I have to admit to sometimes finding the supporting cast of police officers a little much to take. In short, they are astoundingly incompetent on just about all levels—and they think their banter is funny when it is not. 

Chief example here is Det. Sgt. Roberta Steel, as foul-mouthed a would-be heroine as you will find in detective fiction. She is also physically repulsive (she displays “off-grey fillings and a yellow tongue”) and seems to revel in grossing out McRae. Roberta is a lesbian, for no apparent plot reason. To be fair, she landed where she is because McRae works with the so-called “Screw-Up Squad,” cops who have been demoted to Aberdeen because they made egregious mistakes elsewhere. Even her vaping, with its noxious odors of things that just shouldn’t be smoked, is disgusting. I could frankly do without her and would be pleased if she were just written out. 

Granted, this bunch manages to get the job done somehow, but often at the cost of the plot’s credibility. While McRae is engaging, none of his co-workers is even mildly appealing—and that gives this protagonist a big cross to bear.

As surely as one good tale begets another, these series will keep generating new episodes to enjoy. I happily anticipate more from all of these writers, including MacBride, who always stops short of being unreadable. Besides, he makes me think fondly of St. Mary’s Church, which is a very dear place to me.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.