The New York Times Book Review
1222: A Hanne Wilhelmsen Novelby Anne Holt
From Norway’s bestselling female crime writer comes a suspenseful locked-room mystery set in an isolated hotel in Norway, where guests stranded during a monumental snowstorm start turning up dead.
A TRAIN ON ITS WAY to the northern reaches of Norway derails during a massive blizzard, 1,222 meters above sea level. The passengers abandon the train for a… See more details below
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From Norway’s bestselling female crime writer comes a suspenseful locked-room mystery set in an isolated hotel in Norway, where guests stranded during a monumental snowstorm start turning up dead.
A TRAIN ON ITS WAY to the northern reaches of Norway derails during a massive blizzard, 1,222 meters above sea level. The passengers abandon the train for a nearby hotel, centuries-old and practically empty, except for the staff. With plenty of food and shelter from the storm, the passengers think they are safe, until one of them is found dead the next morning.
With no sign of rescue, and the storm continuing to rage, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is asked to investigate. Paralysed by a bullet lodged in her spine, Hanne has no desire to get involved. But she is slowly coaxed back into her old habits as her curiosity and natural talent for observation force her to take an interest in the passengers and their secrets. When another body turns up, Hanne realizes that time is running out, and she must act fast before panic takes over. Complicating things is the presence of a mysterious guest, who had travelled in a private rail car at the end of the train and was evacuated first to the top floor of the hotel. No one knows who the guest is, or why armed guards are needed, but it is making everyone uneasy. Hanne has her suspicions, but she keeps them to herself.
Trapped in her wheelchair, trapped by the storm, and now trapped with a killer, Hanne must fit the pieces of the puzzle together before the killer strikes again.
The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
The Crown Princess had been on the train, according to what people were saying.
Nobody knew where she had gone.
When I insisted on having my wheelchair fetched from the train, it wasn’t only because I felt helpless without it. As far as my mobility went, it didn’t really make that much difference. I had to stay in the lobby anyway. The toilets were on the same floor right next to the main staircase, which made it possible for me to empty my bags with comparatively little embarrassment, thank God, but apart from that there was nowhere I could get to without help.
The most important thing about the wheelchair is that it creates distance.
Not physically, of course; as I said, I am constantly stared at and bombarded with offers of help. I strive more for a kind of mental distance. The chair makes me different. 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.
You learn a great deal in this way. My relationship to other people is—how shall I put it—more academic in its nature. I would prefer not to have anything to do with them at all, something that can easily be interpreted as a lack of interest. This is incorrect. People do interest me. That’s why I watch a great deal of television. I read books. I have a DVD collection that would be the envy of many. In my day I was a good investigator. One of the best, I would like to think. That would be impossible without a certain curiosity when it comes to other people’s stories, other people’s lives.
It’s having people close to me that I find difficult.
I am interested in people, but I don’t want people to be interested in me. A very taxing situation. At least it is if you surround yourself with friends and colleagues, and if you have to work in a team—as you do in the police. When I got shot and almost died, I ran out of strength.
I was perfectly happy sitting there, all by myself.
People were staring, I could feel it, but it was still as if I didn’t exist. They were talking openly about everything. Despite the fact that many had disappeared for a while when the rooms were allocated, it was still too early to wind down for the night. Most of them came back before long. A few were standing chatting in the reception area. The shock of the accident had begun to subside, edging towards laughter. The situation was no longer threatening, in spite of the fact that the storm outside the old hotel was more violent than anything any of us had experienced before. It was more the fact that the shabby, melancholy air of the hotel was having a calming effect on us. Its crooked brown architectural patchwork had withstood both wind and storms for almost a hundred years, and it was not going to let anybody down tonight either. The doctors had worked their way through the queue of those needing help. A few of the teenagers were playing poker. I had positioned my chair at just the right distance from the long wooden table, and I could hear both the youngsters and the stream of people coming back from their rooms to find out the latest news, to compare their injuries, and to stare at the huge windows as the storm tried in vain to batter its way through to us at Finse 1222.
I was listening to what people were saying. They thought I was asleep.
And now that everyone had been taken care of and fed, when there wasn’t much more to say about where exactly they had been on the train when the crash happened, and glasses of red wine and beer had started to appear, most people were more interested in where on earth Mette-Marit had got to.
The rumour had already been circulating on the train. Two middle-aged women just behind me had talked about virtually nothing else. There was an extra carriage, they whispered. The last carriage looked different from the rest of the train, and this wasn’t the way the normal morning train to Bergen looked at all. What’s more, the far end of the platform had been cordoned off. It had to be the Royal Carriage. True, it didn’t look particularly royal, but there was no way of knowing how it was equipped inside, and besides it was widely known that Mette-Marit was scared of flying. It could be Sonja, of course; she adores the mountains, I mean everybody knows that, but on the other hand she wouldn’t be leaving home right now, just before the King’s seventieth birthday.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the two ladies got off at Hønefoss.
I rejoiced too soon.
The gossip had caught on, and was well on the way to becoming the truth. Strangers were chatting to each other. The train became less and less Norwegian as it climbed towards the high mountains. People were sharing their sandwiches and fetching coffee for each other. One person thought they knew something they had heard from someone they knew, and a girl of about twenty-five had definitely heard that somebody she went to school with who now worked in the royal protection team was actually going to Bergen this week.
When we left Oslo, there was quite simply an extra carriage on the train.
By the time we were approaching Finse, the carriage had turned into the Royal Carriage and everybody knew that Mette-Marit and her bodyguards were on board, along with little Prince Sverre, no doubt. He was still so small, after all. He needed his mummy, the little darling. An eager elderly man thought he had seen a little girl through a window before he was brusquely turned away by the police, so Ingrid Alexandra was there too.
But where had they gone, all these members of the royal family?
Sometimes I realize a little more clearly than usual why I would prefer not to have anything to do with other people.
Her voice was characteristic, bordering on parody.
It is said that opinions in themselves are never dangerous. I’m not so sure.
Whether it is Kari Thue’s views or her missionary zeal that frighten me most it’s difficult to say. At any rate, she is still very adept. She could play the main character in a play by Holberg, with her absurd logic, her way of distorting the facts, and her impressive belief in her own message. Besides which, she has such a bloody high profile. She’s everywhere: on the television, on the radio, in the papers. Kari Thue frightens nervous people into becoming aggressive, and seduces otherwise sensible men into insanity. The woman with a voice as sharp as the parting in her thin hair had already started a quarrel. There were two Muslims at Finse this afternoon: a man and a woman. Kari Thue is a bloodhound of note, and she had scented the problem long ago.
“I’m not talking to you,” she almost screamed, and I just had to open my eyes a fraction. “I’m talking to her!”
A short man with an enormous beard was trying to position himself between Kari Thue and a woman to whom he was married, judging by appearances. She was wearing dark, full-length clothes and a headscarf; she was the person the priest had tried to drag along to his prayer meeting in the hobby room, in his confusion. I presumed they were Kurds. They could of course just as easily have been Iranians, Iraqis, or even Italian Muslims, when it came down to it, but I still settled on Kurds. Ever since I got to know Nefis, who is a Turk, I have become pretty good at noticing details that I can’t define, strictly speaking, but which means I rarely get it wrong. The woman was weeping, hiding her face in her hands.
“There, you see!” shouted Kari Thue. “You’ve—”
The priest wearing the Brann scarf, who was at least as well known from television as Thue herself, moved towards them.
“Let’s all just calm down, shall we,” he intoned, placing a calming hand on the shoulder of the agitated Kurdish man. “My name is Cato Hammer. We should all be friends and have some consideration for each other in a situation like—”
He ran his other hand down Kari Thue’s back. She reacted as if he had been anointing her with sulphuric acid, and turned around so fast that she almost dropped the little rucksack she carried over one shoulder.
“Get off!” she hissed. “Don’t touch me!”
He removed his hand at once.
“I really do think you need to calm down a little,” he said in a fatherly tone.
“This has nothing to do with you,” she said. “I’m trying to conduct a conversation with this woman!”
She was so preoccupied with the genial priest that the Kurd seized his chance. With a firm grip on his wife’s arm he hurried away from the reception desk and disappeared in the direction of the stairs, where a sign carved in wood announced that you were now entering St Paal’s Bar.
I don’t like priests. I dislike them and imams in equal measure, although I haven’t actually come across many of the latter. I did once meet a rabbi who was quite decent, but that was in New York. On the whole I have little time for religion, and particularly for those who act as stewards for various religious beliefs. I find priests the most difficult of all to tolerate. Naturally, they are also the ones I am most accustomed to. And I react against priests like Cato Hammer most strongly of all. They preach a theology of tolerance where the boundaries between right and wrong are so vague that I cannot see the point of having a religion at all. They smile piously and open their arms wide. They love everyone. Sometimes I suspect that priests like Cato Hammer don’t believe in God at all. Instead they are in love with a Jesus cliché, the good man in sandals with the velvety gaze and welcoming hands. Suffer little children to come unto me. I just can’t cope with it at all. I don’t want to be embraced. I want sulphurous sermons and threats of eternal flames. Give me priests and bishops with straight backs and burning eyes, give me implacability and condemnation and promises of punishment on the other side. I want a church that whips its congregation onward along the straight and narrow, and makes it crystal clear to the rest of the world that we are heading for eternal damnation. At least that would make it easy to see the difference between us. And I won’t have to feel involved, something I have never asked to be.
So I didn’t like the man.
Without pre-empting events, I would still like to say at this point that the first thing I thought when I heard that Cato Hammer was dead a few hours later was that he hadn’t been such a terrible person after all, in spite of everything.
“Don’t get so agitated,” he said to the raging fury. “You create distance between people, Kari Thue. Muslims are not the same as Islamists. The world is not like that. You divide us up into—”
“Idiot,” she snapped. “I’ve never said or implied anything of the kind. You’ve fallen for the naive Norwegian political correctness that is allowing this country to be invaded by . . .”
I closed my ears.
If religion is, as I believe, basically a scourge for mankind, then I still see no logic, not to mention decency, in arranging believers in some kind of rank order. Religion comprises tyranny and civilization, rejection and conformity, love and oppression. And why Islam in particular should be regarded as worse than other faiths is beyond my comprehension. But it is not beyond Kari Thue’s comprehension. She is the leader of a movement that reserves the right to stand up for all women, children, foetuses, and everything else that forms part of “Norwegian values.”
I am allergic to the word “values.”
Combined with the concept “Norwegian,” it becomes utterly loathsome. In her fanatical desire to strike back at the “Islamic world threat,” Kari Thue and her increasingly numerous and terrifyingly influential campaigns are making life very difficult for hardworking, well-integrated Norwegian Muslims.
The other feeling that struck me several hours later when I heard about the death was therefore a sense of annoyance that it wasn’t Kari Thue who was lying there frozen stiff in a snowdrift instead of Cato Hammer.
But you can’t really say that sort of thing.
“Are you asleep?”
“No,” I said, trying to sit up straight in my chair. “Well, not any more.”
I was starting to feel stiff. Despite the fact that I couldn’t feel the wound in my thigh, it had become clear that the rest of my body had also taken a considerable beating. My back was aching, one shoulder was sore, and my mouth was dry. Dr Streng had pulled up a chair beside me. He offered me a glass of red wine.
“No thanks. But a glass of water would be great.”
He disappeared for a couple of minutes.
“Thanks,” I said, emptying the glass in one draught.
“Good,” said Dr Streng. “It’s important to take in fluids.”
“Definitely,” I said, smiling stiffly.
“Terrible weather,” he said cheerfully.
I don’t respond to remarks like that.
“I tried to go out for a while,” he went on, unabashed. “Just to feel the cold, that’s all. It’s impossible! It’s not just that there’s a hurricane blowing, they say the snow is worse than anyone up here has seen before. It’s piled high against the walls and windows, and the temperature is down to minus twenty-six, and with the wind-chill factor it’s going to feel . . .”
He thought for a moment.
“Freezing cold,” I suggested.
I put the glass down on the floor. Released the brake on my chair and nodded briefly to the doctor before setting off slowly. He didn’t take the hint.
“We can go and sit over here,” he suggested, trotting after me with two glasses of red wine in his hands in the hope that I might change my mind. “Then we can look at the weather!”
I gave up and parked by the window as he suggested.
“Not much to look at,” I said. “Whiteness. Ice. Snow.”
“And wind,” said Dr Magnus Streng. “Just listen to that wind!”
He was right there. For one thing, the roaring from outside was so loud that everyone had to raise their voice in order to be heard. What was more remarkable was that the wind was making the windowpanes vibrate, as if the storm were a living thing with a loudly pounding heart. The view was completely devoid of reference points. No trees, no objects, even the walls of the rooms at right angles to reception had disappeared in a whirling chaos of snow, without anything to focus on.
“Nothing to worry about,” said a voice behind me. “Those windows will hold. They’re triple-glazed. If one goes, there are still two left.”
Geir Rugholmen was clearly not a person to hold grudges. He sat down on the edge of the table and raised his glass in a toast. It looked like Coca-Cola.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Fascinating,” said the doctor happily. “These windows aren’t quite as big, but in Blåstuen”—he was referring to the hotel’s common room on the lower floor—“you really do see the proof that glass is an elastic material. Now, Rugholmen, what can you tell us about these rumours that there’s royalty among us?”
I actually thought I saw a slight shift in the expression on the face of the mountain man. Something watchful, a flicker in his eyes before he sought refuge behind the glass he was holding.
“Nothing but talk,” he said. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
“But that carriage,” Magnus Streng protested. “There was definitely an extra—”
“Is everything OK with you?” asked Rugholmen, looking at me with a little smile, as if he wanted to draw a line under our earlier discussion.
I nodded, then shook my head as Magnus Streng once again offered me the glass of red wine.
“Everybody should be sorted for tonight by now,” said Rugholmen. “And we must be grateful that people were moved across to the other buildings in time. Right now it’s absolutely impossible to be outside. The wind would just blow you off your feet, and the snow is something else.”
“When is somebody going to come for us?” I asked.
Geir Rugholmen burst out laughing. His laughter was happy and melodious, like that of a young girl. He took out a tin of snuff.
“You don’t give up, do you?” he said.
“How long is the weather going to be like this?” I wondered.
“For a long time.”
“What does that mean?”
“Hard to say.”
“But surely you must be in contact with the Met Office,” I said, not even trying to conceal my irritation.
He tucked a fresh plug under his lip and slipped the tin into his pocket.
“It doesn’t look good. But you should just take it easy. There’s enough food here, and warmth, and plenty to drink. Make yourself at home.”
“If it had to happen,” said Magnus Streng, “it’s fantastic that we were only a few hundred metres from the station. As far as I understand it, that’s why we weren’t travelling too fast. Less than seventy kilometres an hour, they said. We really can talk about a blessing in disguise. And then there’s this hotel! What a place! What service! Nothing but smiles and kindness. You’d think they took in accident victims every single—”
“Who’s actually responsible?” I interrupted, looking at Geir Rugholmen.
“Responsible? For the hotel?”
“For the accident?” he asked sarcastically, throwing his arms open wide. “For the weather?”
“For us,” I said. “Who’s responsible for the rescue operation? For getting us down from here? As far as I know, it’s the local police who carry the operational responsibility. What does that involve? Is it Ulvik police district? Is there a local representative? Is the Mountain Rescue Service in Sola—”
“That’s a hell of a lot of questions you’ve got there,” Geir Rugholmen interrupted me, speaking so loudly that those sitting nearby stopped talking and looked over in our direction. “It’s hardly my job to answer questions like that!”
“I thought you were part of a rescue team. The Red Cross?”
“You’re wrong there.”
He slammed his glass down on the table.
“I’m a solicitor,” he said irritably. “And I live in Bergen. I’ve got an apartment here and I’ve taken a week off work to sort out the kitchen before the winter skiing break. When I heard the bang it didn’t take much imagination to work out what had happened. I’ve got a snowmobile. I helped you and plenty of other people, and I’m not asking for any thanks for that. But you could at least try to be a little bit more pleasant, don’t you think?”
His face was so close to mine that I felt a fine shower of saliva as he hissed: “If you can’t be grateful, you could at least be a little bit more polite towards a bloke who instead of painting his kitchen has been shuttling back and forth in this fucking awful weather to bring both you and your bloody chair to safety!”
I’m used to people going off and leaving me alone. That’s what I want. It’s a question of finding the balance between being rude and reserved. Too much of the latter simply makes people curious and more intrusive, just like Magnus Streng, who had clearly decided to get to know me better. But I had obviously gone too far when it came to the former.
“I do apologize,” I said, trying to sound as if I meant it. “I am of course grateful for your help. Particularly for the fact that you went to get my chair when the weather had worsened. Thank you. Thank you very much indeed.”
I was lying. Geir Rugholmen looked at me expressionlessly for a few seconds, then shrugged his shoulders and gave a wry smile.
“Good,” he said. “And I can tell you that we’re holding an information meeting in . . .” he glanced at his diver’s watch made of black plastic, “half an hour. It’s going to be held here. Because of you, in fact. It was my idea. And just so we’re clear: it’s going to take a while before anybody comes to fetch us. It’s impossible to say how long. The power lines are down to the west of Haugastøl. The snowstorm is so severe that not even diesel snow ploughs can get through. There’s no chance of a helicopter in weather like this. We’re simply cut off. So you might as well try and relax for the time being. OK?”
Without waiting for an answer he finished off his drink and walked away.
Adrian had found someone.
This surprised me. I had noticed it a little earlier; he sauntered across the rough, worn wooden floor with an older girl trailing behind him. She might have been around eighteen. It was hard to say, actually. She reminded me of a less attractive clone of Nemi, the cartoon character. Thin as a rake, and dressed all in black with coal-black hair. Only the mouse-coloured roots showing along her parting, a silver-coloured piercing in her lower lip, and her pale skin diverged from the monotonous black. Her make-up was so thick she could have been fifteen or twenty-five. The two of them sat down on the floor with their backs to the wall and their arms around their knees right next to the kitchen door. They didn’t appear to be talking to one another. They just sat there like two mute, antisocial individuals in a group of people who had become positively relaxed during the course of the evening.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a little drop?”
Magnus Streng was offering me the glass of red wine again.
What I really wanted to do was to remind him that he was a doctor. That I had just been involved in a major accident, and had suffered loss of blood due to a ski pole penetrating my thigh. I really wanted to ask him if alcohol was appropriate medication for a middle-aged disabled woman with an indubitably lowered general state of health.
There are limits, even for me.
“No thank you.”
But I didn’t smile. Which was equally effective, in fact.
“No, right,” he said, getting to his feet. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, then. I’m going to try and sort out this royal mystery.”
My mobile rang.
Well, it glowed silently. I always have the sound switched off. Up to now it had been in the pocket of my padded jacket. It had fallen out onto the floor when I was looking for a piece of chocolate. It showed fifteen missed calls.
Presumably the accident had been reported across the media. Since the satellite dish in Finse had either been blown down or buried in snow, there were no working televisions in the hotel or the private apartments. A few people had been listening to the radio during the afternoon and evening. None of them had anything new to report on a rescue operation. It seemed as if the matter was not being pursued at present; it could hardly be said that we were in great danger. I have to admit that it seemed pointless to risk life and limb in order to rescue survivors who were safe and warm, cosily installed in a charming hotel. And I don’t suppose the dead train driver was in any hurry to get down from the mountain. As far as the mysterious extra carriage was concerned, it seemed as if those passengers were also safely settled in the top, and doubtless most luxurious, apartment in the wing.
Basically, everything was more or less OK.
Apart from the fact that I had forgotten something.
I too have people who are close to me: a woman and a child.
I’d forgotten to call home.
Despite the fact that I was dreading speaking to Nefis, and was busy trying to come up with a strategy before I gathered the courage to call, I couldn’t quite forget Geir Rugholmen’s reaction to the question about the mysterious carriage. It was highly unlikely that Mette-Marit would be on the train. But there was an extra carriage. There had been security guards on the sealed-off area of the platform at Oslo’s central station.
“I’m alive,” I said before Nefis had time to say anything at all. “I’m perfectly OK and things aren’t too bad at all.”
The telling-off lasted so long that I stopped listening.
If the people in the last carriage weren’t members of the royal family, then who were they?
“Sorry,” I said quietly when the tirade on the other end of the line finally petered out. “I really am sorry. I should have called straight away.”
Whoever had been travelling in that last, completely different carriage between Oslo and Bergen, it was incomprehensible that nobody had seen them after the accident. That couldn’t possibly be true. Somebody must have helped them. Somebody from the rescue team must have helped them along the route from the tunnel opening to the hotel. As the rumours about the royal party grew, the only explanation I could come up with was that the people in the last carriage must have been taken out first, and were therefore already indoors and settled in the top apartment before the rest of us started arriving at Finse 1222.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Really I am.”
Nefis was crying at the other end.
Copyright © 2011 by Anne Holt
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