Thursday, October 06, 2011
Dregs: Norwegian police procedural
Dregs, by Norwegian crime writer Jørn Lier Horst, is a first-class police procedural. Horst has had some time to perfect his craft: this is apparently the 6th in the series featuring Detective William Wisting, and his 8th novel, but the first to be translated into English. Though it's always preferable to start a series with the first book (to my mind), Horst does a good job of keeping the reader informed about the characters' past, so we English-speakers won't get lost.
The book is set in Stavern, in southeast Norway (near the city of Larvik, where Horst is himself a policeman). Wisting is called to the shore where a left-foot running shoe has washed ashore, with the foot still inside. This is the second recent Scandinavian crime novel to feature a foot-washing-ashore (Swedish writer Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles arrived a bit earlier), but apart from that and the fact that both are police procedurals, the books don't have a lot in common. Horst's book is a bit more straightforward, while Eriksson's ranges quite far in time and geography. Plus in Horst's book, the reader sees only a few brief scenes that either Wisting or his daughter Line (a journalist) don't see (there aren't scenes from the viewpoint of the killer or victims).
In Dregs, too, more shoes come washing ashore, all for the left foot (which is also present). Wisting and his team quickly align the case with the disappearances of a group of old men and two women, but no one can figure out what's going on, or why the missing people's feet (rather than whole bodies) keep showing up. Simultaneously, Line is in town (she normally works in Oslo), working on a feature article about released prisoners. One in particular has captured her interest, and eventually his story becomes intertwined in the investigation—but not in an obvious way (nothing about the story is obvious).
Wisting is a very interesting character (and the novel is more character-driven than plot-driven, unlike a couple of other Scandinavian crime novels I've read recently). Wisting is feeling his age and waiting for results from a doctor's visit. Like many other fictional detectives, there's a tragedy in his past (the death of his wife and Line's mother), but unlike many others, he has partly moved on and is now in a positive relationship with a woman in the town. Line, as well, is in a relationship, but one that her father is not entirely happy with.
All in all, it's a very realistic story, focused on the characters and the slow progress through the investigation (leading through spirals of information, going through the facts again and again from various newly discovered angles—as in any good police procedural). It's not a puzzle mystery, since neither the reader nor the police are in possession of the information necessary to solve the case until well into the story. The police procedural format is more satisfying to me than the puzzle mystery, for reasons I don't fully understand. But the pleasures of the procedural are very much in evidence in Dregs.
The title works very well, too—various shades of meaning of "dregs" surface at various points. Horst is one of the best writers of the current crop (a new Scandinavian crime wave in English translation): nothing like the books of Stieg Larsson, and actually not much like those of Henning Mankell either (though they share the procedural format). Horst's style is low-key, but very involving, vivid, and persuasive.