Death in Oslo is the third of Anne Holt’s novels featuring Superintendent Adam Stubo and his partner Johanne Vik, set in the Norwegian capital, as the title suggests. I haven’t read the previous two novels (Punishment and The Final Murder) so it is slightly unusual for me to start reading a series at any other other place than the first book. Nevertheless, Scandanavian writers have justifiably earned their place as international leaders of the genre, so I was very much looking forward to discovering a new writer.
The premise of the novel is straightforward enough. In the 2004 US Presidential election, George W. Bush was not up against John Kerry, but instead the Democratic nomination went to Helen Barclay, a woman of Norwegian descent who, against a backdrop of discontent with US foreign policy and disillusionment with Bush, becomes the first woman American President. Given that this novel was first published in 2006, two years before Obama’s spectacular victory, maybe the author was anticipating a Hillary Clinton presidency. Certainly the author’s own politics and low regard for Bush are not worn lightly in the pages of the book – something that sterngthens it, in my opinion.
Not surprisingly, the new President makes a visit to Oslo her first overseas visit, but no sooner has she arrived then she is kidnapped. What follows is a series of skeletons rattling in cupboards and a lot of interpersonal tension between the characters, as the Norwegian Police are characterised as restrained and hard-working, whilst the FBI are shown to be duplicitous, loud and arrogant. A case of stereotyping, perhaps, but it drives forward the pace of the narrative and it makes for some comic scenes.
Another great strength of the novel is for me the multiple narrative’s that Holt weaves into the story – narratives than span the globe and the decades. The problem for me was that none of the narratives are satisfactorily resolved, or even explained. Whilst what lies behind the kidnapping of Barclay is a plot to destabilise the world financial markets, there is never enough detail to explain how this is going to happen and I was left thinking that the author doesn’t really know either – a good idea perhaps, but in need of some more research.
The other thing that I found problematic is that so much of what happens in the novel is completely preposterous. Of course, in a book of this kind, there is always going to be an element of that, but characters too often behave inconsistently and some of the assumptions on whicjh the story is based are just too unbelievable. I want to resist going into too much detail or giving specific examples here for fear of giving too much away, because I did nonetheless enjoy reading the book despite becoming exasperated as my credibility was stretched time and again.
Perhaps one of the issues here is that Holt has tried to fuse together two genres, the police procedural with the spy thriller. Whilst the first relies on much more local, even paraochial detail, the latter is much more grand and global in its sweep. I’m not sure that Holt has succeeded in resolving these two polarities.