In defence of reading genre: What Dark Clouds Hide / Anne Holt

I’m guilty of book-snobbery. My guilty genre of choice is that mysterious beast known as Scandinavian or Nordic noir. Brooding, complex, ambivalent, gritty, cold and psychologically challenging, it has all the hallmarks I love to read. Scandi-noir is notably less concerned with following a crime procedural formula. Characters in these books are flawed, and the lines between victims, perpetrators, heroes and antagonists are blurred. For many years, the genre was synonymous in the English-translated domain with Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series. For years I avoided The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo mainly because of its popularity. Instead of that Larsson, I found fellow Swede Åsa Larsson and I haven’t been able to shake the genre’s hold since. Though I’m loathe to categorise them as ‘female crime writers’, rather than simply ‘writers’, the women of Scandi-noir – such as Åsa Larsson, Mari Jungstedt, Karin Fossum, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Karin Alvtegen (not a comprehensive list) have made the greatest impression.

About a bout of heavily literary reading, I picked up Anne Holt’s What Dark Clouds Hide (Skyggedød, originally published 2012), as well as another crime novel. Reading them in tandem, I came to appreciate the nuances and depth of Holt’s Nordic noir. The unnamed novel involved an elaborate series of serial killings barbed with improbable red herrings; the crimes were solved with convenient timing, featuring a line-up of protagonists with a chocolate-box array of defects. Holt on the other hand, (with a background in the Norwegian police department, legal system and role as Minister for Justice) is understated and convincing in What Dark Clouds Hide.

The novel comprises a deceptively simple premise: a young boy dies after falling from a ladder. On the surface it’s a very ordinary, very human lapse of parental concentration. A terrible accident – or was it? Usually sharp profiler Johanne Vik, close friend to the dead boy’s parents, is unable to detect dysfunction in the Mohr household. Police attention has been diverted to another unfolding tragedy: the horrific mass murder attack by terrorist Anders Breivik.

The one officer paying attention is newly qualified Henrik Holme. Holme is unsympathetic as he investigates the parents of Sander Mohl, who reside in a wealthy suburb in Oslo; he ignores taken-for-granted notions of the family’s privilege, even as a senior detective wearily chides him: “This isn’t a deprived family in a caravan.” This awkward, unsocial, fearful and phobic character is problematic – not at all comfortable to read. In one throw-away comment, Holme’s sexual experience is described as consisting of three events, “in the third instance the girl had been so drunk that he could do what he wanted, and what he wanted was very quickly over and done with.” It is this matter-of-fact darkness in which Holt dwells. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen wrote an excellent piece on What Dark Clouds Hide and Nordic Noir after Utoya, exploring Holme-as-anti-hero, and the phenomenon of tragedy occurring under the watch of the “small wealthy welfare state” that Norway seems to represent.

What Dark Clouds Hide is the fifth and final chapter in the Vik/Stubo series. Concluding with a staggering scene that challenges stock endings of crime fiction, it is a captivating standalone read that explores the culpability of passive parties in the wake of violence against children.

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