Friday, 17 February 2012

REVIEW Dregs by Jørn Lier Horst

Dregs by Jorn Lier Hørst is a very fine crime novel. It is the sixth in a series featuring Norwegian detective William Wisting, but only the first to be published in this country. Hopefully it will be a success, and we can see the rest of the series translated as soon as possible.

Comparing this weary, health-anxious Police Inspector, dispirited and yet relentless in pursuit, to Wallander is of course fairly obvious. Measuring Scandinavian crime procedural novels to Mankell's, either negatively or positively, is indeed almost a review staple - not as much now maybe since The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - but Mankell does operate as a kind of weather vane every time a new writer comes along. Much to my surprise, Dregs is actually the nearest to Mankell I have come across. I'm not saying that it is simple pastiche, and there are familiarities (Wisting's adventurous grown daughter, for example - a journalist in this series, but equally prone to scrapes), but more that Jorn Lier Hørst has crafted settings and characters that are every bit as involving and impressive as Kurt, Linda and company.

Severed left feet are washing up on the midsummer beaches near Stavern. With echoes of the early scenes in Jaws this creates a mounting tension amongst the detectives, and a steadily complicated media background.Wisting and his team immediately begin linking this gruesome flotsam with a series of missing person cases, and piece by piece they grind their way towards a conclusion which readers may have an inkling on, but remains shocking nonetheless. Like Wallander, Wisting manages this against a barrage of health concerns and symptoms, anxiety over a new relationship, concerns for his daughter, for the state of the world, for life itself. It is in this sense, really, that Wisting resembles Wallander - he is an impeccably drawn character that is shown with great skill to simply carry heavily the concerns of his age and life. Yes, there are superficial resemblances, but there are as many differences. Wisting's wife, for example, has died. This adds an entirely different dimension to his character - Wallander's relationship wih his ex-wife after their divorce is a very different situation.

Jorn Lier Hørst also writes with that plain spoken, easy voice that is a feature not just of Mankell, but many Scandinavian crime writers. Where this works very well is in the depiction of Wisting's internal thought patterns, his devices and desires - we are made aware of them almost as fleetingly as the clouds, darkness and rain that are such a powerful recurring descriptive feature of this novel. I think what this simplicity achieves is a strong sense of humanity - ordinary humanity, if that makes sense. The great weight of these events does not fall from the back of characters like Wisting - at this point, the sixth in the series, the reader encounters a man almost distilled in this life, these experiences.

For all this cool internal dialogue, the novel is well-paced and is a very compelling page turner. The gradual discovery of leads and clues is completely engrossing, and even if the reader is sometimes one or two steps ahead of the detectives, it is never the case that the next events are completely telegraphed in any way, or a let down. I was completely hooked. The novel finally builds towards a familiar dual peril trajectory that means the last one hundred pages or so have to be read in one sitting. Top stuff.

Sandstone Press's publication of 'Dregs' is supported financially by Creative Scotland. Well done them - it is hugely valuable that they support adventurous independent publishers to share the best in genre fiction in translation. Dregs is exactly that.

You can read a good interview with the author here.