The influx of Nordic noir novels continues apace, so quickly that it is almost impossible to keep up. It is, however, worth trying to do so, as demonstrated by the US publication of BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO THIRST. The second installment in Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series, expertly translated for American readers by the highly capable Anne Bruce, almost qualifies as an historical mystery, given that it first saw publication in Holt’s native Norway in 1993 and is set in that year as well. Younger readers may puzzle at the (relative) absence of Internet research, smartphones and the like, but the result is a wonderful combination of old-school police procedure and amateur detective work (more on that in a minute).
Wilhelmsen, as may be evident to those who have encountered her in the past, is not an entirely sympathetic character; at times, her compassion has seemed not so much misplaced as misapplied. That is not the case in BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO THIRST, which has Wilhelmsen, and the Oslo Police Department of which she is a part, laboring under a crippling workload that threatens to burst the department asunder at the seams. A series of bizarre incidents, involving the weekly display of horrendous amounts of human and animal blood, has left the department perplexed, all the more so due to the display of a series of numbers, also written in blood, on the wall at each scene. The only thing that’s missing is a victim; without a victim, there is no crime and thus no reason to investigate.
"Holt is a master of balancing criminal procedure with suspense, so that the last third or so of BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO THIRST goes by in a blur, with a number of different outcomes possible --- some of them satisfying, others potentially less so."
Wilhelmsen has other foul deeds to investigate, not the least of which is the brutal rape of a medical student in her apartment. The assault leaves the young woman shattered. Her father, a middle-aged dentist who has always been his daughter’s protector, silently vows revenge and begins his own investigation, which follows in the shadow of Wilhelmsen and the overworked and somewhat jaded police department. It is the father’s single-minded anger and laser-like focus that makes him the more successful investigator. It is not that the police are uncaring; to the contrary, Wilhelmsen is haunted by her lack of time and resources, even as she seeks to make every minute count, however futilely.
Meanwhile, the victim quite accidentally makes a discovery of her own that she pursues, thus learning the identity of her attacker by other devices. Wilhelmsen slowly discerns a link between the horrific rape and the blood-soaked tableaus that seem to taunt the Oslo police department, and finds herself in a race against not only time but also a single-minded killer, as well as the revenge-driven father and daughter who separately pursue him.
Those who have been reading the Wilhelmsen books as they have been published in the States (and thus out of order) will have to make some minor adjustments in their impression of Wilhelmsen’s living situations, which change dramatically as the series progresses. But this will not impede your enjoyment of any book in the series. Holt is a master of balancing criminal procedure with suspense, so that the last third or so of BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO THIRST goes by in a blur, with a number of different outcomes possible --- some of them satisfying, others potentially less so. There is a bit of delicious irony at the end as well, even as a minor plot line is left dangling for resolution at a later date. This is a series that demands to be read, and the more quickly the better.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 4, 2013