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Thursday, November 10, 2011

1222, by Anne Holt (hardcover, $25) (due 12/11)

I knew I would like this book when our at-first anonymous narrator, confined to a wheelchair and injured in a train accident, is attended by a dwarf physician. Anne Holt writes, "His voice was surprisingly deep. I had expected some kind of helium voice, as if he were an entertainer at a children's party."

This is the eighth Hanne Wilhelmsen story but the first to be translated into English from Norwegian. It really doesn't matter that we haven't read the other seven, a statement I don't make too often because usually, especially this far into a series, our understanding is contingent on some preceding adventure. Holt slowly introduces Hanne, a retired police detective, and this teasing introduction actually serves the story well.

A once-in-a-hundred-years snowstorm derails a train and traps 268 people, including Hanne, in an out-of-the-way hotel, Finse 1222. They are rats in a maze with no foreseeable reward. Although the snow does its best to quickly bury the hotel, it is not quite quick enough to totally bury the body of a murdered "guest" before it is discovered. The victim is a "televangelist," who is well known to many of the other detainees.

Holt's selection of unorthodox characters to populate the hotel is captivating. Each one of the highlighted people encapsulates a mini-mystery.

Kari Thue, "the woman with a voice as sharp as the parting in her thin hair," is an aggressive television personality, one who has some deep-seated racial prejudices, currently aimed like laser beams at two putative Muslims trapped with everyone else. In a display of pack mentality, she draws similarly narrow-minded people to her, and they stridently demand the impossible.

Adrian, a fifteen-year-old boy, is someone Hanne wants to protect, but he falls under the sway of black-clad, Goth-visaged Veronica.

Magnus Treng, the dwarf physician, Berit Tverre, the hotel manager who must rise to the occasion and organize the storm's hostages, and Geir Rugholmen, the man who appears to be a backwoodsman but is actually a lawyer, are the people upon whom Hanne relies.

Hanne is less a movable character than a stationary narrator. Her handicap limits her to the lobby of the hotel. Although she is still familiar with police procedure, she is reluctant to investigate. The police are coming soon; they will solve the crime easily, she thinks. As the storm rages on far longer than expected, we watch death after death occur, with no discernible movement on Hanne's part to figure out why. Holt builds this tension to an excruciating point. Several times I silently willed Hanne to metaphorically leap up and frisk people, search rooms, haul them in one by one to be interrogated. So "Law and Order"-ish of me, so American, so wrong. Even though we see things through Hanne's first-person narrative, we are never privy to her real thoughts, a clever device, as it turns out.

In the end we learn that this reluctance is what now defines Hanne. After she was shot and paralyzed, she entered some sort of purgatorial waiting room:
I thought I had swapped one life for another. After these days at Finse, it struck me that I had actually swapped a vital, ambitious life for an existence in waiting.
Clever Holt serves up a little existential drama along with a murder mystery.

There's a subplot that swirls around occasionally. A mysterious extra car was added onto the train. Rumor has it that it is a royal carriage. Indeed, the occupants of the last car are surreptitiously bundled into the hotel and hidden from sight. There are armed bodyguards, even. 

If you need a reference point, then Lord of the Flies meets And Then There Were None, perhaps. Holt and translator Marlaine Delargy present an interesting and well-written book, one that truly can stand alone, despite being the eighth in a series.

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