It’s impossible to review a new crime book by a Scandinavian author without making comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s behemoth of modern literature. However such comparisons are generally unfair, as Larsson’s trilogy subverts the genre to such an extent that it can’t really be described as crime. Traditional crime novels pit the wits, rather than technological capacities of their protagonists against those of dangerous criminals, with high stakes cat-and-mouse shenanigans ensuing.
Part of an ongoing series of novels by Jǿrn Lier Horst, Dregs clearly falls into this category of crime literature, and can best be described as ‘Rebus among the Fjords’. In it, all the skills of veteran Police Inspector William Wisting are required to catch a killer, with only the four dismembered feet of the victims washed ashore as clues. Delving into the case, Wisting quickly uncovers a tangled web of intrigue that hides a multitude of secrets, including missing persons, an unsolved bank robbery and the shadowy remnants of a wartime resistance cell.
In all, the story is particularly zippy, with short chapters leading the reader teasingly onwards towards the inevitably confrontational conclusion. The problem however lies in the fact that the characters do little to move the story on themselves – every time the investigation hits a dead end, a new witness comes forward, or a new clue miraculously washes up on the seashore, with a distinct whiff of deus ex machina.
This is of course part and parcel of the crime genre, and the majority of crime novels get around the problem by raising the stakes for all players on the board – it’s difficult to achieve this in Dregs however, as past events play such a prominent role in the plot that the long-game has effectively been played out before Wisting has even lifted a magnifying glass. Consequently, there’s little sense of urgency facing the Inspector, apart from a desire not to appear incompetent in front of the press.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting ideas at work here. There is some superb misdirection of the reader at several points in the text, and the themes such as the morality of a government’s actions during times of war are intriguingly explored.
Ultimately, Dregs is a crime novel of the traditional sort which just happens to be set in Norway. Readers expecting the next Stieg Larsson are likely to be disappointed; however readers more used to the traditional structures and pacing of crime novels are likely to whizz through. For such people, Dregs is the perfect read for those long cold nights in the run up to Christmas.