Blessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt

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Blessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: The second in Anne Holt's series about the charismatic detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, this is a raw, uncompromising Norwegian crime novel that gives a painful account of the effects of rape on the survivor and her family.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Atlantic Books
ISBN: 9780857892263

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1222 was one of last year’s crime novel sensations. Set in a blizzard-hit hotel in a remote part of Norway and featuring prickly detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, it was Miss Marple meets Harry Hole, a clever and very funny take on the Nordic noir genre.

1222 was Britain’s introduction to Wilhelmsen and her creator, the lawyer and Norwegian Minister for Justice-turned-novelist Anne Holt. Scandinavian readers, however, have been familiar with them both since 1993, when Hanne made her debut in the novel The Blind Goddess. Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, first written in 1994, is Hanne’s second case, a story that shows her still finding her feet as a detective.

As a reader whose previous experience of Hanne Wilhelmsen was in 1222, it’s strange to see the way the character has evolved. Almost twenty years and six novels separate the Hanne of 1222, a wheelchair-bound fifty-something comfortable with her lesbian identity and happy in her committed relationship with a Muslim immigrant, from the tense, closeted thirty-something police officer of Blessed are Those Who Thirst, a young woman hides her own vulnerability under the armour of her anger and a glamorous pink motorcycle. All the same, though, I could very much see the seeds of 1222’s heroine in Blessed Are Those Who Thirst’s. Although Hanne looks at life from very different perspectives in the two novels, one thing has not changed at all: her fury at the injustices she sees around her, and her determination to right those wrongs. In both Blessed Are Those Who Thirst and 1222, Holt is reminding Norwegians not to be complacent. Terrible things can happen in even the most civilised societies, she points out, and no country is capable of transcending social problems.

In Blessed are Those Who Thirst, the target of Hanne’s anger is society’s attitude to rape. The book focuses on the violent rape of a young woman and the impact of this act on herself and her family. Holt has all the statistics, in their bleak horror, at her fingertips – the hundreds of rape cases dropped each year, the barely six months in jail that are all that most convicted rapists can expect – and this well-informed outrage makes her protagonist’s struggle feel terrifyingly raw and real. The questions that Holt uses Hanne and rape survivor Kristine to pose, of whether the police are capable of dealing justly with a rapist, and, if not, whether the injured parties are justified in seeking their own revenge, feel like much more than the usual lazy what-ifs dreamed up by sensation-hungry crime novelists. The female characters in Holt’s novels are so strong because they feel so real. They are not tropes or clichés, they are simply ordinary human beings struggling to cope with horrors that, as Holt points out so bitterly, are all too common.

But although the messages of 1222 and Blessed Are Those Who Thirst are similar, they feel like very different novels. 1222 is light and well-balanced, very much the work of a mature writer confident in her ability to build character and plot. Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, in comparison, feels strangely truncated. It’s short – barely 200 pages – and it whips through its plot at breakneck speed. There’s no padding, and little time to draw breath as the narrative moves forward. Its rage is barely modulated, showing only a few flashes of the off-beat humour that comes out so successfully in 1222.

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is a passionate, fascinating crime novel, but it’s also very much an early effort by an author with enormous technical skill who has not yet reached the height of her powers. Hanne, like Holt, is clearly going somewhere great, and if I’d been exposed to these novels in chronological order I doubt I’d be feeling that anything was missing. But knowing the future of the series gives me an odd feeling of disconnect. This isn’t quite the book I was expecting.

Nevertheless, in itself Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is a good and thought-provoking novel. Although it can stumble over itself, it’s so well observed that at times it makes for painful reading. This is an interesting early effort from a very good crime writer. If you don’t expect another 1222, you’ll enjoy Blessed Are Those Who Thirst for what it is.

Want to read the first book in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series? Try The Blind Goddess.

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