Review: Punishment by Anne Holt introduces a new team tackling a frighteningly realistic crime

Punishment, the latest offering from Anne Holt, dubbed the “godmother of modern ApunishmentNorwegian crime fiction” by international Scandi Noir author Jo Nesbo, introduces a new fiction team to her readers. Holt has achieved great acclaim with her Hanne Wilhelmsen series, including the recent Dead Joker and Punishment is the first of the series featuring Superintendent Adam Stubo and psychologist Johanne Vik to be translated into English.

Holt draws on her experience working for the Oslo Police, as a lawyer and during a period as Norway’s Minister for Justice, to provide a compelling authenticity to her books, not just of the police and judiciary but also their often fraught intersection with the political system. Couple that with intriguing often (as in this case) fairly complex plotting, you can understand why she’s so popular.

In Punishment, Stubo is called in to investigate after three separate young children disappear, the bodies of two returned to their parents with the message You Got What You Deserve. From the offset it proves a frustrating case. There seems no link between the children or their parents and the coroner cannot even find the cause of death. As public criticism and political pressure mounts, Stubo inveigles his way into the life of lawyer and psychologist Johanne Vik sure that she will be the catalyst to unlocking the case.

But Vik is already working on a decades-old case, a man wrongly accused of raping and murdering a young girl later abruptly released without a reason being given, apparently the subject of unacknowledged political interference is reluctant to join the case. Eventually the combination of Stubo’s dogged determination and analytic acuity prove too much.

It’s early days in the series (for those of us reading it in English translation) and there are some rough edges to both Vik and Stubo’s characters but Holt has created a likeable and plausible new team: inherently decent, enough emotional baggage to add interest but not commandeer the plot, and .

Punishment is at times a difficult read. Holt is dealing with a subject that is every parent’s nightmare and the scenes involving one of the snatched girls and the physical and emotional impact on her are particularly harrowing. Despite the race-against-time aspect of the plot, and Holt’s short and snappy style of writing, the book unfolds through a slow-paced and sometimes complex (you do need to pay attention). My one real quibble is over a key plot twist that hinges on a coincidence: that’s never my favourite story-line device.

But overall Punishment is a gripping, suitably bleak (this is Scandi Noir after all), all too scarily believable and with leading characters who you really do care about. The next in the series is due out in English translation shortly.

Punishment is published by Allen & Unwin.

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