The enigmatic title of Anne Holt’s “1222” refers to Finse, a railway station and old-fashioned hotel far up in northern Norway, 1,222 meters above sea level. Several years ago Hanne Wilhelmsen, a retired policewoman, was shot in a gunfight that left her crippled. As the novel opens, she finds herself in a train accident near Finse during one of the worst blizzards and bitterest cold spells she has ever experienced.
Villagers appear to rescue the 269 passengers and get them to shelter. Oddly, in such an obscure place, the hotel kitchen is supplied with enough food for the chef to serve up gourmet meals for the several days they’ll be snowbound. There aren’t enough rooms and people have to double up, but the passengers are safe in the otherwise empty hotel. (The setting brings to mind Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”) The only thing out of the ordinary is the extra carriage on the train, rumored to have been carrying members of the royal family, though why anyone from that clan would want to take a trip to Bergen during the coldest spell in decades remains a mystery. There were plenty of clergymen on the train on their way to a conference, and they offerChristian platitudes and schedule a prayer meeting in the hotel lobby, but somebody puts a stop to that by murdering a particularly obnoxious priest and, within a few hours, doing away with another. Wearily, Hanne is dragged into the inquiry.
To say Hanne is antisocial would be an understatement. Since the shooting that crippled her, she’s become an evil-tempered recluse. She lives with her lover, a lesbian Muslim mathematics professor, and they have a little girl whom Hanne adores, but otherwise the rest of the world can just take a hike. She rages over everything, particularly her place in the world: “The chair makes me different,” she says. “It defines me as something completely different from all the rest, and it is not uncommon for people to assume that I am stupid. Or deaf. People talk over my head, quite literally, and if I simply lean back and close my eyes, it’s as if I don’t exist.”
All this makes it easier for Hanne to watch what’s going on as she investigates the deaths of the two clergymen. Soon she’s acquired a circle of sidekicks who try to help but mostly impede her. Geir has a continuous stream of snuff juice dribbling down his chin and a bad habit of spitting when he talks. Dr. Streng is a dwarf who cares for Hanne after a ski pole goes through her leg during the train accident. And Adrian is a forlorn but feisty boy of 15who tries to act tough but generally fails. And, of course, there are others — a regular Chaucerian “field of folk” hanging around to pester Hanne.
So you see what we have here. There’s no reason to make the doctor be a dwarf or to send snuff dribbling down Geir’s chin. It’s just for the fun of it. Scandinavian thrillers are all the rage now, starting, I guess, with “Smilla’s Sense of Snow.” It must be spooky in Scandinavia, but Holt, Norway’s best-selling female crime writer and a former minister of justice, has a goofy streak that changes the tone of this beguiling book. There are lots of helicopters toward the end and cops running around and worldwide implications (the only weak part is a contrived conversation about America as a world power). The fun goes on in the lobby, where peculiar people conspire, and just outside the hotel, where people hide corpses, or try to. I really loved this snowbound book.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.