Punishment by Anne Holt
This is a novel about a serial killer set in contemporary Norway. The killer’s MO involves abducting children and then returning the corpses to their mothers with a note, ‘You got what you deserved’. The action in the novel is largely geared towards the detective, Adam Stubo, finding the killer in time to save another child, and his determination to pursue ex-FBI profiler Johanne Vik to help him in his quest. Will he get her, and will they get there, in time?
The relationship between Vik and Stubo is the emotional subplot of the novel and provides a tender, if pragmatic, relief from the pure evil of the main plot. A further plot (it is a bit plot heavy) involves Vik’s attempts to get to the bottom of a 40 year old murder mystery (which ends up dovetailing with the main plot in a twist so improbable as to almost be probable again).
The novel’s evocation of the emotions of children is powerful and undoubtedly one of the novel’s strongest points. The descriptions of their terror and sense of abandonment made me ache as a parent - that they believe that their parents will be looking for them, their tearful and snotty incomprehension about why they are where they are, is chilling. The role adopted by Emilie as seven year old surrogate mother to her fellow child captives should make you weep. This blurring of the boundary between adult and child and adult and childish adds to the sense of unease. It surfaces at other points in the novel too - Emilie knows her mother is dead and knows what dead means but lets her dad continue telling her rose-coloured stories about imaginary places. Vik’s learning disabled daughter teaches the dazed Vik how to live with her.
Structurally it is clever, and interweaves chapters from the point of view of Johanne with those written from the voice of the killer. Stylistically it requires patience, but it is unclear whether this is simply by virtue of it being in translation. If you like your sentences trailing off into… then you will be delighted, but if you think that this would wear thin after a while then… Chapters average at around 5 pages long, but the truncation of certain sections to add pace seems at times contrived. This was a novel that I only really ‘got into’ about two-thirds of the way through. Given its classic thriller theme (kids in danger!) this was somewhat surprising.
Another frustration is the absence of Norway in any strong sense. There is such a focus on plot that place loses out. One could compare it unfavourably to other writers of crime set in Scandinavia. Peter Hoeg’s 1996 thriller Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow evoked a Denmark that was at once alien and cold and new (to UK readers). Part of this was seeing everything with the acute eye of the relative outsider (Smilla is a woman of Inuit descent living in a society were Inuits are socially marginalised). Henning Mankell does a similar thing with his Return of the Dancing Master, whose evocation of Northern Sweden really does sound like it looks on Ray Mears. One feels the cold, the isolation, and it seeps into the novel, shaping the action and the characters. The landscape and the towns and the villages are there in Punishment, but their Norwegian-ness is muted.
The novel made me feel good about myself in a way that a novel about a murderous paedophile delivering the corpses of dead children to their mother’s shouldn’t. The reason it did so was because the adult characters were, on the whole, unsympathetic. They sometimes veered towards sounding like characters in dreary Radio Four afternoon plays that usually have Scottish or Irish accents and are prone to introspection and standing on beaches. My life and the degree of stress I manifest about the most mundane things suddenly seemed reasonable, and even a little understated. Vik is boring and self-indulgent, a whinging ex-wife (to an admittedly infuriating former spouse), and an over-anxious parent to a child with learning disabilities. She is passionless, irritating, self-obsessed and profoundly, almost impossibly, dull. Stubo, the hard-boiled and yet soft-yoked cop she has a relationship of sorts with is marginally better, but the idea of a relationship between the two conjoured images of some nightmare unison of a poor man’s Jodie Foster and a butch Steve Davies. That unthinkable. That dull. The resolution of the novel was a bit quick and tidy and relied on some rather self-consciuosly clever science. No simple ‘Mr Mustard in the conservatory with the revolver’. It also boiled down to the fact that the guy was mad. So really, mad guy abducts and kills children and is pursued by the law. If that’s your bag, then this is your book.