A Memory for Murder by Anne Holt

Anne Holt is a force to be reckoned with. Her professional career as a writer, lawyer and a former Minister of Justice provided her with a rich experience she draws upon. Holt’s perception of the current affairs gives her the best perspective of the world she creates for her characters. Combined with understated yet commanding writing method, precise narration and detailed observations, her style is unique and formidable, and also reflective. She creates tough female protagonists; independent women that know their own strong points and equally realise what their weaknesses are. This awareness does not always appeal to others, and that includes the readers. However, they do not need to be liked or admired. Some understanding of their motives, or the situations they find themselves in, helps to relate to them but I would say that the complexity of personalities, and some traits considered unattractive in the society add tension and drama to the stories that Holt tells so well.  

A Memory For Murder is a remarkable slow burner of a thriller taking in complex social and political issues, and questioning the nature of Norwegian welfare state in the context of the European Court of Human Rights. Of course these themes are the basis for equally complex portrayal of the main and secondary characters, and all and any possible links or connections between them. As in the previous novels in the series, A Grave for Two, and A Necessary Death, which was shortlisted for the Petrona Award 2021, Selma Falck is the centre of the investigations. Former athlete, high-flying lawyer and celebrity, she now makes a living as a private investigator. She lives independent solitary life and chooses to answer to no one. With her fragile family ties Selma’s focus/obsession is only on one small human being, her grandson Skjalg. The current book offers enough background to explain why her own daughter Anine is so reluctant to keep in touch; earlier books expand on this theme. Hence thinking of Skjalg becomes the main reason for her to investigate a case that otherwise she would have left to the police. It also keeps her gambling addiction at bay and gives her hope to see the little boy. 

It all started with a late lunch with two friends at the outside restaurant in Oslo’s district of Grünerløkka. A sniper shot and killed her oldest friend, unremarkable junior MP Linda Bruseth while the stray bullet travelled through the victim and hit Selma’s shoulder. Everyone, including the police and more importantly, Anine, assume that Selma was the main target. Initially she thinks that as well but soon realises the impossibility of this, even though a stalker seems to plague her life on top of this. But the invisible intruder who enters her flat or leaves objects that have not been seen for years does not present fear of such violence, although unsettles Selma. Maybe she was the collateral damage…

Soon after the shooting a Supreme Court Judge Kajsa Breien is found hanged from a tree branch. A woman diminutive in posture but gigantic in spirit, could not have committed suicide though. Selma knew her, too, and finds a link between two victims as they both have been involved in challenging child welfare cases. She doesn’t discover the connection on her own though; however, she is much quicker to see beyond the obvious aspects of both deaths and to form a plausible theory.

Although Selma’s brain and emotions are on fire and she thinks with a lightening speed, she does not work in a vacuum. Three men assist her in the sphere of inquiries, and like everything in her professional and personal life, the working relationships with them are complicated. A journalist Lars Winther, summoned by his boss, reluctantly takes on an investigative work left by his recently deceased colleague. Jonathan died in a cycling accident and had access to articles and encrypted files that clearly pointed at some scandal within the child services. Second man central to the search for clues and motives is the police superintendent Fredrik Smedstuen, not a maverick nor a brilliant lone wolf, but ‘a policeman of the grey type’, a disillusioned divorced hardworking man who decides to trust Selma’s thinking. ‘He did what he had to do, no more nor less, and followed the rules to the letter’ and finally found himself in the middle of explosive controversy.

And there is Einar Falsen, traumatised ex-policeman, a man totally shattered by the system and his mental breakdown, who, however, remains Selma’s closest friend and confidante, and when feeling safe and healthy, he offers the most insightful advice. Over the course of three novels Einar became a rock in Selma’s existence, even if he still suffers from serious delusions. Looking back at his life this is totally understandable, and I admire Holt for creating such a poignant human being.

‘Pussycat had once been called Darius after a fabled king of Persia. His territory at that time had been vast and even though he was an expensive pedigree cat, he enjoyed most of all roaming through the gardens around the villas on Ormøya island, hunting for mice and small birds. Despite his noble antecedents in the Middle East, he had never stayed indoors for more than a few hours at a time. Whenever a collar had been put on him, he had come home without it. No one had ever discovered how he managed to get rid of them. Darius was a free spirit. Now he was called Pussycat and lived in an area of fifty square metres with a man who took him out for fresh air, on a leash, in a park, a couple of nights a week. Pussycat had never been happier. He was living with a true cat lover.’

The novel’s original title is significant. Mandela-effekten or ‘Mandela effect’ refers to the false memories and misremembering, a phenomenon of a situation in which a huge number of people believes that an event occurred although it did not happen at all. Holt’s methodical analysis and deep reflections present a version of a society based on trust in the authorities and the scenarios where this trust is broken. This relates to personal experiences impacted by the decisisons taken by various government branches. As it happened Holt started writing A Memory For Murder just before the pandemic engulfed us, so confidence and faith in the governments are particularly critical and relevant, also for a character responsible for ensuring safety of the society in case of any possible disaster.   

‘A slightly crazy lady, I’ve forgotten her name, was sure she remembered Mandela dying while he was in prison. She could describe his funeral down to the last details. Which in that case must have happened while he was still a prisoner on Robben Island. Before 1990, that is, not in 2013.’

Anne Bruce’s translation is superb as always, bringing Anne Holt’s impressive style and nuances of the Norwegian language to the fore in this crisp sharp look at the society, a book that is also engaging, riveting and full of red herrings.

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