1222 (2007) by Anne Holt

With such a title it would be easy to think this was going to be a historical mystery, yet in fact the title refers to the number of metres high a derailed train is, a derailment which leads to over 200 passengers being injured and stranded up a Norwegian mountain in the middle of a fierce and deadly snowstorm. Fortunately nearby there is an old hotel and the passengers are able to go there out of the storm. Yet this is only the beginning of their troubles, as Cato Hammer is shot at close range in the middle of the night. The story is seen from Hanne Wilhelmsen’s point of view. She is a retired police officer and is paralysed from the waist down due to an arrest which went wrong, a condition which has exacerbated her tendency to withdraw and isolate herself from others. Consequently the events which follow definitely put her outside her comfort zone. Her past work experience once known means that she is at the centre of things. Along with her, only a handful of others are really in the know of what is happening at the hotel: Geir Rugholmen, a lawyer, Magnus Streng, a doctor and Berit Tverre, the hotel manager. Although asked to investigate into the Hammer’s death Wilhelmsen refuses, emphasising how this is a job for the police and she is also keen to maintain an atmosphere of calm, hoping this will prevent the killer from lashing out with further killings. This hope is not fulfilled as a key witness who is prevented from fully conversing with Wilhelmsen is murdered the following night.

1222

However there are many factors increasing how difficult this situation is. There are characters such as Kari Thue, who in her professional and personal life seems to have a knack for and a desire for creating discord and division between groups. Just the sort of person you want to be stuck with whilst there’s a killer on the loose – not. The elements too are causing great difficulties. Not only are the trapped within the hotel, but the hotel itself is physically buckling under the strain. Finally although not a difficulty as such, there is a further mysterious element within the hotel. The train whilst on its journey had an additional carriage added to it, one which was cordoned off at the platform and had special guards. Rumour has it there were royal personages in there, but Wilhelmsen is far more sceptical, especially when the people in this carriage, not only got rescued first, but commandeered the top floor of the hotel, with armed guards outside. Not only do events draw Wilhelmsen into solving the case, they also make her look at herself and the way her paralysation has affected her life.

Overall Thoughts

It is hard to not think of the work of Agatha Christie when considering this book’s plot. To begin with we have a group of people on a train, whose journey is prevented by the weather, giving the story a slight nod to Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and the way the solution is pretty much handed to the police at the end when they arrive, strengthens this parallel. We also then have this group of people trapped within a contained space, the hotel, with a serial killer on the loose, which of course makes you think of And Then There Were None (1939). However, what I think limits further parallels being made between this book and Holt’s is due to pace and atmosphere. 1222 has moments of high tension when the majority of passengers begin to panic, but this hardly matches the tension achieved in Christie’s book. No doubt the much larger cast of characters prevents this, though in the main we don’t find out much about the vast majority of them – Wilhelmsen is probably the character we know the most about by the end. Furthermore, I think Holt’s story suffers from pacing issues, as the book is too long. Dramatic incidents do happen along the way but because of Wilhelmsen’s refusal to do a proper investigation it means that even when you reach page 300 of the 353 paged novel, we don’t really know much more than what we did when the first victim was found. Whilst I can understand Wilhelmsen’s decision, I think not having a more overt investigation in the story makes it a less gripping read, as everyone is too vague to really get suspicious about. Moreover, even when Wilhelmsen realises more action needs to take place to figure out the killer and prevent even more deaths, this realisation doesn’t lead to that much activity. Consequently when the solution arrives it lacks impact. You can see how she gleamed some evidence from clues planted earlier in the story but all the same it felt a little tenuous. All of which is a real shame as Holt has a really good setup and her narrative style shows a great deal of skill, especially in her chosen narrator: Wilhelmsen.

Image result for 1222 anne holt

From the very beginning, even before we get to know more about Wilhelmsen’s disability and her personality, we can tell she is a rational and logical person, who avoids the emotional response. On the first page of the book she tells us about the crash: ‘as it was only the train driver who died, you couldn’t call it a disaster… a dead train driver comprises only 0.37 per cent of’ the people on board the train. She uses her disability to keep people at a distance and it also brings out quite understandably a defensive side to her. Her encounters with people invariably end up rather prickly and in truth she prefers to observe people rather than interact with them: ‘my relationship to other people is – how shall I put it – more academic in its nature.’ Her disability also reminded me of another fictional sleuth, Hans Olav Lahlum’s Patricia. Patricia is far less prickly than Wilhelmsen, though she suffers more from intellectual pride. Yet both of them for one reason or other tend to have limited access to the outside world and at times this is partially a voluntary choice. It is perhaps easier to warm up to Patricia as her conversation is less awkward and brusque, but on the other hand there is perhaps a greater sense of humanity within Wilhelmsen, whose has had a much wider range of experiences in her life. She’s flawed but she’s the only one who has concern for a runaway teenager, though the ending of the book does not suggest how far this concern goes. Having now read a novel with Wilhelmsen in I am not sure why the back of the book tries to align her with Miss Marple. Miss Marple relies a lot on her conversational skills in finding out more about people and solving cases. This is definitely not something apparent in Wilhelmsen who consistently struggles with this social skill. So I think it is wrong to try and package her that way, almost a disservice really.

So I guess the only thing now I have left to do is justify my final rating, as my review has seemed awfully negative. So what did I like? The setup, with the weather being a consistent danger and problem for the characters, the narrative point of view and Wilhelmsen, who Holt reveals to us in layers, which worked very well. In fact Wilhelmsen is one of the major strengths of the book and it is only a shame that her detecting skills are quite hidden from the reader. The other characters who make the small group of people who know what is going on in the hotel are also engaging and you can warm to them quite easily. Holt also has a writing style which carries you along very well, so you only periodically start having the concerns that I have talked about more fully in the review.

Rating: 3.75/5 (and yes I keep changing my mind on the rating every three seconds. Question to self: Why did I decide to have a numerical rating system?).

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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12 Responses to 1222 (2007) by Anne Holt

  1. JJ says:

    If not a numerical rating systen, what would you have? Emojis? And even then, if you have a certain number of emojis depending on how you felt about the book, isn’t that technically still a numercial rating system?

    But, putting my pedantry aside for a moment, it’s great to read your thoughts on this. I view with a certain suspicion the sudden wave of Nordic, Swedish, and generally cold, central European crime fiction that’s become all the rage these last few years, but this was one I was almost tempted to bend on and try. I think you’ve convinced me not to, in spite of there being some very good elements to this. Not a fan of long, slow waits between events and clues, and I’m becoming less patient with summations that aren’t as conclusive as the authors would like to think. Those two elements alone are enough to dissuade me, so thanks for saving my money, time, and ire!

    out of interest, is this actually a locked room, as The Times claim on the cover above, or is it simply a closed circle of suspects? TomCat has recently corrected me on the tendency of press outlest to confuse the two, so I’m now really just curious…

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha yes I’m sure I would get myself into knots whatever rating system I used. Even if I used smiley faces I would probably be wondering whether the face was nuanced enough to represent a 3.75 differently to a 4. This is not a locked room mystery, just closed set of suspects. Any of the hundreds of guests could have bumped off Cato and hidden the gun (a gun incidentally no one ever looked for until Wilhelmsen figures out where it might be in the end.) It is actually things like this example which let the book down, as granted Wilhelmsen didn’t have to go all Inspector Alleyn on the suspects, but I think more could have been done. Dramatic events do occur throughout the book but as you read you increasingly realise that most of it isn’t actually telling you anything about the case. Wilhelmsen is a good character so I don’t know whether she would have a greater sleuthing role in a different plot situation.

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  2. No need for a rating system – let the review speak for itself. That’s what I do.

    You could just as easily ask why mark out of 5 when you allow a scale of 0.25. The mathematician in me says you shoul mark out of 20…

    But a rating system never made sense to me when I started. What’s the difference between 3/5 and 3.5/5? Is a 5/5 a true crime classic (The ABC Murders) or a clever mystery that I really enjoyed (Chef Maurice, for example)? Part of me says that you can’t compare things directly that aren’t that similar, so I never really contemplated a scoring system and, despite some requests (honestly) I’ve never considered it. I suppose though that with my notion of not spoiling anything beyond the first quarter of a book, my reviews are intended to be read by people who haven’t read the book. The more detail you include, the more people might skip to the end to get the score…

    Oh, good review, btw.

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    • Well technically you have the system of highly recommended, recommended, don’t touch with a barge pole (may have added that last one myself). But even with that system I would end up in a pickle trying to decide between whether books are just recommended or highly recommended. Guess I have a need for exactitude, even if it is only a exact measure of my subjective viewpoint on a book. No idea why I made it out of 5 (clearly the mathematician in me wasn’t at home at that point).

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  3. I gave up ratings a few years ago because I realised I wasn’t even being consistent with myself let alone other people. But that’s me.

    As for 1222 I can understand the vacillation. I recall liking the book but mostly because I saw it as a variation on the country house mystery which has always been my personal favourite of the traditional mystery tropes. And I like Wilhelmsen. Or relate to her I suppose. I too am basically a curmudgeon who dislikes most people 🙂 But I also recall disliking the sensational elements of the story and the ‘royal carriage’ thread.

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  5. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve read an earlier Holt one and am still trying to make up my mind about Hanne Wilhelmsen – but I think that’s a good thing, not one of those flat, clicheed characters.
    (By the way, Norway is not part of the EU, unfortunately… although it is part of the European Economic Area and Customs Union, which the UK will not be in the future).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whoops sorry! I get in a muddle sometimes with what is Europe and what is EU. Geography has never been one of my strong points. Yeah I think I am also undecided about Wilhelmsen, but it is good to find a complex and not easy to categorise character.

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