‘The Hunting Dogs,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

The Hunting Dogs

Wisting had found his own way: easy, quiet and patient. He could listen without letting his emotions get in the way, put himself in the other person’s shoes and demonstrate empathy. In time he had learned that, deep inside, all human beings are afraid of being alone. Afraid of loneliness, everyone craved a hearing.

On to the third novel (available in English) in Jørn Lier Horst’s William Wisting police procedural series. Chief Inspector William Wisting of Larvik, Norway finds himself suspended from the force at the beginning of The Hunting Dogs. 17 years ago he led a team of detectives who built a successful case against a man for the kidnapping and murder of a young model. Now that man is suing, claiming he has proof that the DNA evidence was faked.

Before he leaves Wisting manages to persuade the police archivist to lend him the old case files. He knows he didn’t cheat on the case, but what if one of his colleagues did? About the time he leaves, the rest of the squad starts investigating another kidnapping, that of a teenaged girl.

The pattern with the Wisting novels is that there are two plot strands. One involves the case Wisting himself is working. But at the same time we follow his journalist daughter Line as she pursues a story of her own, always one that resonates to some extent with her father’s case. This time she’s doing a feature on men who’ve served long (by Norwegian standards) sentences in prison, examining how they have changed, and whether their punishment made them more or less likely to offend again. One of the men she’ll be interviewing is the man who’s suing her father. The drama builds to a frightening confrontation.

This was the first novel in the series that I read, and I liked it very much. The reader is left, not only with an entertaining experience, but with human and societal questions to ponder. And yet no overt politics are apparent.

Cautions for mature themes and language. Recommended.

Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

Scholarly paper warning.

David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall, and Caroline M. Wilkinson have written an interdisciplinary paper on the Lewis chessmen, uncovered in Scotland in 1831. They are centuries-old, walrus ivory chess pieces, 78 in all. The authors suggest the story may have become too streamlined to reveal reality.

Whether kings or princes from the Isle of Man or descended from Somerled, local nobles or high-ranking clerics, there were several men in late Norse Lewis who could have aspired to own the Lewis pieces, and who would have valued them as gaming pieces. Rather than accepting the deus ex machina  explanation of a passing merchant losing his stock, it is surely more plausible that the Lewis pieces were found in Lewis because that was where they were intended to end up and be enjoyed.
   . . .
There are two final points to make here. First, no matter how or why the Lewis pieces arrived at Uig, it is only a presumption that they were new when buried. If they belonged to a local nobleman or cleric they may have provided many years of enjoyment before they passed out of use. This is a significant point to which we will return after a more detailed analysis of the individual pieces. Second, the circumstances of the hoard’s discovery are so vague that there can be no confidence as to whether it was lost or deliberately hidden.

This isn’t quite the storyline of The Chessmen by Peter May, but you may find it interesting. Abstract to follow. Continue reading Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

‘Closed For Winter,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

Closed For Winter

Investigating a murder case with an unknown perpetrator was like picking the label off a beer bottle. It was never possible to remove it in one piece. Instead it had to be torn off one ragged little section at a time.

This is the second book available in English, in Jorn Lier Horst’s William Wisting police procedural series, set in Norway. In Closed For Winter, Wisting’s daughter Line, a journalist, has broken up with her slightly shady boyfriend, and is spending time at her father’s seaside cottage. While she’s there, the police are called to a cottage not far away. Several cottages have been broken into and robbed, but in one of them a dead body has been found. The victim has been shot and bludgeoned, and he’s found wearing a balaclava over his face. An ambulance comes to remove the body, but it gets hijacked and set on fire. Then a second gunshot victim is found dead in a beached boat.

As Inspector Wisting and his team try to identify the dead and figure out what’s going on, they are also concerned with rumors of tensions among criminal gangs and the plans (revealed by an informant) of a particular gang to rob a bank vault. The plot tension rises constantly, and there are a couple very neat surprises at the end.

I liked Closed For Winter. It didn’t have the ordinary feel of Scandinavian Noir. There’s a strong dose of compassion for people forced into crime by poverty, balanced with a steadfast defense of the law. These are character-driven stories, and that pleases me.

Recommended. Cautions for language and mature subject matter.

‘Dregs,’ by Jorn Lier Horst


You probably recall how I feel about “Scandinavian Noir” mysteries. In general I consider them dank, grotesquely nihilistic, and overrated. However, I recently got a tip about Jorn Lier Horst’s Norwegian series starring Chief Inspector William Wisting (you pronounce the “W’s” as “V’s”). I’m quite enjoying them, to my considerable surprise.

William Wisting is a detective in the small community of Larvik, in the general area of Oslo. He’s a widower, has a girlfriend, and gets on well with his two adult children. His daughter Line (pronounced “LEE-neh”) is a newspaper journalist. Although Wisting worries about the risks she takes in her work, he respects her talent and industry, and she’s happy to assist him in his research from time to time.

Dregs is not the first book in the Wisting series (nor the first I read) but it’s the first in sequence to be translated into English, so I’m reviewing it first. The story begins with the discovery of an athletic shoe (a “trainer” as they call them in Europe), washed up on a beach. The shoe is a left shoe, and it contains a human foot. A few days later another shoe and foot wash up – but it’s another left foot. And then there’s another, also a left. Continue reading ‘Dregs,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

‘Hell’s Princess,’ by Harold Schechter

Hell's Princess

How they resisted the temptation to title this book, “Hell’s Belle,” I will never understand.

We Norwegian-Americans are generally reconciled to the fact that we occupy a secondary (at best) tier in American culture. But we take pride in our notabale sons and daughters: Politicians like Hubert Humphrey, scientists like Norman Borlaug, actors like Harry Morgan.

There is one prominent Norwegian American, though, whom most of us had never heard of (I had, but I’m fairly remarkable): Belle Gunness of LaPorte, Indiana, one of America’s first known serial killers and one of her few female serial killers. She also scores pretty high in the body count tallies.

Hell’s Princess, by true crime author Harold Schechter, tells her grisly story in a scholarly and judicious manner. Though the ending (as he admits) is kind of anticlimactic.

Belle Gunness was born in Norway in 1859; she was a large, unlovely woman and the victim of rape. She immigrated to America, worked hard, and had a reputation for kindness to children. But somewhere along the line she determined to be rich, and chose an easy road to wealth. Continue reading ‘Hell’s Princess,’ by Harold Schechter

‘Where have the words gone?’

My wife is beginning to write a book. Her editor is the son of a Nobel laureate, but that is Oldthink. Because he is a clever man who keeps his finger on the pulse, he has my wife recording podcasts even before the book is begun.

Richard Brookhiser of National Review writes about his wife podcasting the subject of her book as she writes it, giving a glimpse perhaps of the future of words. (via Prufrock News)

No Little Women, by Aimee Byrd

[W]omen are created in the image of God as necessary allies to men in carrying out his mission. Because of this, women are to be good theologians with informed convictions. We are to take this call seriously and invest quality time in our theological growth ad Bible study within the context of our local church as a foundation to our service and contributions to the church, our families, and society.

Aimee Byrd, author of Theological Fitness: Why We Need a Fighting Faith and other books, took up the topic of women in the church in her thoroughly reasonably and well-written book No Little Women.  The title comes from 2 Timothy 3:6-7, “For among them are those [wicked teachers] who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” Do such teachers creep around today and do they find opportunities among church women who know something but not enough of the Bible?

Byrd worries that the ministry leaders of most of our churches give too little attention to their women’s ministry studies, allowing them to more-or-less do their own thing with any Bible-related study they find appealing. As a result, writers and conference speakers are using Christian language to teach unChristian principles to increasing audiences. And women are more open to these principles by the simple fact they read more. If their pastors give implicit approval to whatever bears a Christian label and no other instruction or training in the faith, then they can easily be led astray.

I worry many of our churches  lack the theological grounding to know they are going astray until the false doctrines have been laid and momentum gained. I remember a local Southern Baptist pastor telling me what he was teaching in new congregation (catechism and careful exposition), and one woman thanked him for trusting them enough to wrestle with big ideas. That was unusual.

I thought of that while reading Byrd’s recommendations to leaders for gaining the attention and trust of the women in their congregations. Understand, she said, that the body of Christ is both male and female and both male and female should be well-versed in God’s word. Also recognize while women may not be allowed in ordained teaching roles, they do teach–all the time. Mothers, sisters, and wives exercise their faith every day in diverse ways. Some bear witness to the truth, others to the lies of the world.

Men need women as necessary allies in the faith to speak the truth in love, to rebuke deception, guard affection, rally motivation, and rejoice over the work the Lord is doing in his people. Therefore, women need the same attentive training men receive.

Byrd briefly describes how, since the beginning of our country, many women have stepped up as spiritual leaders to take eager congregations away from God’s Word. “There is a common thread in the bad theology: these women have all claimed to have received special revelation from God.” But by equipping women to be the necessary and competent allies the church needs we can hold dear the truths of God for another generation.

(Photo by Bethany Laird on Unsplash)

Did Crime and Punishment Remake the Novel?

Of course, Dostoevsky’s claim to have invented a new literary genre doesn’t solely rest on Crime and Punishment. Although it was published when he was 45, after so many books and setbacks, it marked a breakthrough, not a culmination. Its resemblance to Hamlet resides both in its details (fatherless ex-student, bookish sidekick, philosophy, mumbling, murder) and in its peculiar status, as an extraordinary achievement that also serves as the preparation for a trio of more ambitiously unsettling tragedies.

Various touches point towards Dostoevsky’s later novels: a reflection on the “holy fool” (The Idiot), a dream involving a city-wide disease (The Possessed), a smattering of theodicy (The Brothers Karamazov). It is not an insult to Crime and Punishment but a tribute to its author to say that his most famous book, the face he shows to the world, plays a more servile role within his body of work, something like a hinge, or border – a spin-off that doubles as a gateway drug to more exalted highs.

Leo Robson writes of the importance of Crime and Punishment to its author and the literary world, even those who disliked it. (via Prufrock News)

Commitment (in two senses)

Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev

I’m still keyed up about my sudden admittance to the ragged outskirts of the movie industry. For all I know, this translation experiment will be a failure, culminating in shame and derisive laughter. And yet it seems to be going pretty well so far. Which leads me to ponder, after the manner of a script doctor, where this plot line in my life started.

It was a summer in the 1970s. I’d recently graduated from college, though I was still living in an upstairs apartment on campus. The woman I had fallen in love with, more than any other before or since, had recently left the country. I had a strong feeling that I’d never see her again (I was almost right), and that I would be forever sad and alone (I nailed that one). So what was I to do with the shards of my hardly-begun life?

I resolved to do two things. I would write a novel, and I would learn Norwegian.

My true motive for writing the novel was (I’m pretty sure) to Show Her. I would be a great and famous literary figure, and she would kick herself for missing out on a good thing every time she saw me guesting on the Carson Show.

That didn’t work out very well. The novel would be finished – eventually – and it would be published, about 20 years later. But to date it has failed to make me a beloved cultural icon.

My motive for learning Norwegian, I think, was that I had a vague idea that someday I’d travel to Norway, where I’d meet a wonderful woman who’d be impressed that I spoke her language and make me forget my sorrows.

That hasn’t worked out very well either.

But I stuck with the plan, by gum. And now the two of them together have snagged me an interesting job.

At this point, I suppose, I should close with a hackneyed meditation on the importance of perseverance.

But that’s only one possible lesson. Another is a similarly hackneyed bromide: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”

Fortunately, insanity is no handicap in the film industry.

You Think You’re Unpublished Now?

A thousand trees have been planted in the Nordmarka forest, near Oslo, Norway, as a work of art, literature, and hope in dystopian days. It’s being called a work of art, framtidsbiblioteket  or The Future Library; and I don’t doubt it’s beautiful even now. Trees have a way about them.

The trees are to meant grow for 100 years (starting in 2014) and then be cut for the paper to publish anthologies with manuscripts that will be written over that hundred-year period. Participating writers will surrender their original work to the project and allow it to go unpublished until 2114, preventing anyone from knowing how pretentious and unreadable it is until after their death. The writers who submit something in 2100 will be the ones under pressure, because they will have living readers to engage at the next virtual book signing. If their work flops, it will only be another weight to drag the whole project under water.

Who’s going to care to read back fifty years to see whether one of these works will hold their interest? Other writers possibly. More likely it will be publishers who read through these anthologies to find a gem they can exploit for themselves. “Frizzik Notweilder’s Ghosts at Noon Know the Heimlich, written seventy years ago and published in the framtidsbiblioteket anthologies, is the novel of the century, now available through Simon & Zondervan publishers.”

And Notweilder won’t know a thing about it.

The Norwegian word for ‘translator’ is ‘oversetter’

From time to time on this blog, thanks to Phil’s patience and longsuffering, I review movies and TV shows. Sometimes they’re foreign productions, often Scandinavian ones. One of my most frequent complaints about foreign films is the poor quality of the English translations.

It appears I’ll now be in a position to do something about that problem.

Briefly stated, I responded a couple days ago to an inquiry in a Facebook group, asking for people with Norwegian translation skills and writing abilities. I figured I might as well take a shot, and today I have an agreement to work as a freelancer with Meteoritt (Meteorite), an Oslo-based company that does translation, closed captions, and subtitles for film and television productions.

They’ve got me working on a very interesting project right now – but I can’t tell you what it is. There’s a non-disclosure agreement, for reasons that make sense once you get involved. When the project is released, I’ll be able to tell you I worked on it.

Some of you may be asking (as I asked myself) “What will that mean for your novel-writing?”

Well, in the short run, it will make it difficult.

But in a few months, if things go as I expect, my day job situation is likely to change. At that time I’ll probably be in a position to spend more time on the novel.

Maybe all this won’t work out. Maybe I’ll find the company incompatible, or the work too challenging. But if it prospers, it could set me up for my old age in a very agreeable manner.

I’m very happy about this.

‘Last Orders,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Last Orders

Phil’s ideas were a lot like children: they could be wonderful or a nightmare, but regardless, you couldn’t leave them on their own for very long, or bad things would happen.

Caimh McDonnell is definitely having us on. The third book of his “Dublin Trilogy” proved to be a prequel, and it’s this fourth book (which makes it a tetralogy at this stage) that finally wraps the story up. Sort of. A note at the end informs us that a further sequel is coming.

Ah well, it’s all fun. In Last Orders, a couple old bodies are dug up in the course of a construction project, and we know (if we recall the prequel) that the bodies belong to two guys one of our heroes, old Bunny McGarry, killed 18 years ago. All in a good cause, of course. They were killers (even though one of them was an FBI agent), and he was saving a good woman’s life.

But now the specter of discovery hangs over Bunny, who has never entirely recovered from the tortures he suffered in the second book. Retired from the police force, he’s supposed to be part of the detective agency started by his friends Paul and Brigit, but his heart isn’t in it. Mostly he whiles away his time drinking and making a spectacle of himself in public.

Meanwhile Paul has become obsessed with a duel of practical jokes between his agency and a rival agency. This leads to somebody actually getting injured, leading to a lawsuit and the impending death of the agency, unless a way can be found to discredit the plaintiff. Also the course of true love is not running smooth between him and Brigit.

Last Orders is essentially a serious story, told in a hilarious way. Lots of laughs all through, along with some genuinely poignant moments. Cautions for language and immature themes. I loved it.

‘The Dead Daughter,’ by Thomas Fincham

The Dead Daughter

Possibly the worst book title I’ve ever seen. Thomas Fincham’s The Dead Daughter isn’t as bad as its name, but it’s no masterpiece.

Kyla Gardener was the daughter of a wealthy couple in the (fictional, I think) city of Milton. When her mother Sharon finds her dead, strangled and stabbed, suspicion falls on her father, Paul. The marriage is struggling, and he’s been sleeping in the guest house. The burglar alarm had been turned off. The murder knife was found in his car, and a smear of her blood was found on his shirt. He himself had been drinking and has no memory of the night at all.

But private eye Lee Callahan has information for the police – Paul had hired him to follow Sharon as part of his divorce defense. She was gone that night, not at home as she claimed, and it was she who turned off the burglar alarm. That’s enough to get Paul out on bail, and Lee takes it on himself – out of pure generosity – to try to balance the one-sided investigation the police are running. What he discovers will be shocking.

The thing that kept me reading The Dead Daughter was that the story itself wasn’t bad. Lee Callahan is interesting and sympathetic as a character. But the writing was… unfortunate. Amateur. First draft stuff.

Holt began to pace the room like he normally did. He was like a bull who wanted to let off steam.

It was a family secret, one they did not want the public to find out about.

Author Fincham, according to his bio, has written quite a few novels. Apparently he hasn’t learned a thing about writing all through the process. If he’d put some work in on that front, I think he’d be a good novelist.

‘Going Underground,’ by Michael Leese

Going Underground

I’ve often suspected that I’m somewhere on the lower end of the autism spectrum. Whether I am or not, I’ve always found autism an intriguing subject. So I purchased Going Underground, by Michael Leese, a novel with an autistic hero. It didn’t grab me, though I finished it. I’m really at a loss to say why I didn’t like it better.

The story begins with the murder of a prominent genealogist by his trusted secretary. Then a beloved philanthropist’s body is found, dismembered, in a cellar. Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Brian Hooley is sent to investigate the second case, and he brings along his favored assistant, Jonathan Roper. Jonathan has a bad reputation at the Yard because he nearly blew an important arrest before his recent suspension. But Hooley believes in him. Jonathan is autistic, and his social cluelessness makes him unpopular with other detectives. But he has amazing abilities to observe and process information. He justifies Hooley’s trust when he quickly locates hidden evidence no one else would have found. The evidence leads them to a genetic research company, where (they eventually learn) genuinely evil experiments are being carried on behind the respectable façade.

I can identify no failure in the writing in this book (except for a lamentable tendency to close individual paragraphs within extended monologues with quotation marks, which could be the fault of an editor converting the text to American punctuation). But somehow the characters never came alive for me. Maybe I’m not as comfortable with the portrayal of autism as I thought I was.

Anyway, I can’t enthusiastically recommend Going Underground, but I have no real objections to make either. Cautions for mature themes.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture