The Katharina Code by Jørn Lier Horst

Thoughtful, character-driven crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Twenty-four years ago, Katharina Haugen went missing and has never been seen since. She left a partially packed suitcase and a sheet of paper filled with cryptic numbers, the meaning of which has never been discovered. The obvious suspect, her husband Martin, had a cast-iron alibi, and the police have never been able to identify any other suspects. Every year on the anniversary of her disappearance, William Wisting, the detective who investigated the case at the time, visits Martin, and over the year they’ve developed a kind of friendship. But this year when Wisting calls at his house as usual, Martin has gone missing too. And then Wisting discovers that the new Cold Cases Group has discovered new evidence linking the Katharina case to another unsolved disappearance…

It was only on finishing this that I realised it’s the twelfth in a series about Norwegian detective William Wisting, which explains why I felt we weren’t given much background about him or his family. Other than that, this worked very well as a standalone. Wisting is the kind of detective I like – dedicated, hard-working, with a stable family life and a life outside work. He’s a widower with a grown-up son and daughter. Thomas is home on leave from his job in the military, but doesn’t play a significant part in the story. Line, on the other hand, is a journalist, working freelance since the birth of her child, and is asked to write a series of articles and make a podcast about the other cold case, the Nadia Krogh disappearance, so she has a bigger role. Horst handles this very credibly, avoiding the temptation to have her act as some kind of all-action sidekick to her father, and instead using her to give the reader another perspective on the case as it unfolds.

This is a slow-paced book, based firmly on the realism of police investigation. As such, there’s not a lot of action or any of the ubiquitous shock twists so prevalent in current crime writing. It also becomes clear relatively early on who is responsible for the disappearances, meaning that the bulk of the story is more about how the police go about catching the perpetrator and finding evidence. In common with a lot of contemporary crime fiction, I felt it could have lost a hundred pages and been the better for it. Nevertheless, it never lost my attention even during the rather overlong mid-section, and this is because I felt both the writing and the depth of the characterisation were strong enough to carry it. The inclusion of Wisting’s family helped to make him a rounded character – driven, for sure, but not to excessive extremes. And his relationship with Martin, Katharina’s husband, is developed very well and realistically, as we see how the event that brought them together – Katharina’s disappearance – also acts as an invisible barrier to them becoming full friends.

Jørn Lier Horst

The detective from the Cold Cases Group, Adrian Stiller, is rather more enigmatic. His methods take him close to the line and sometimes across it, and he’s quite willing to manipulate people to get his results, but he’s effective. He’s also troubled, and it’s only towards the end that we learn why. This is billed as the first in a “Cold Case Quartet”, so I’m assuming he will feature in the others and will probably be filled out more as a character in them. In this one, I wasn’t sure whether I liked him or not, so it will be interesting to see how he develops. Not having read the previous books, I don’t know if Wisting usually works alone, but in this one the two of them together made for an interesting pairing – both desiring the same end, but not sure about each other’s methods of achieving it.

Overall I enjoyed this, and would recommend it to readers who like a thoughtful, character-driven approach to crime rather than twisty action- packed thrillers. I’ll be keen to read the next in the quartet, and look forward to reading some of the earlier books in the series too, though I don’t think they’ve all been translated.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK – Michael Joseph.

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36 thoughts on “The Katharina Code by Jørn Lier Horst

    • I’ve read a few of the Nordic authors and usually enjoy them – I think they go for a more traditional style that works better for me than the current obsession with domestic thrillers. But on the whole I’m very insular when it comes to crime – the vast majority of what I read is by British writers. I do always intend to spread my wings a bit but it rarely happens….


  1. So annoying when you unknowingly choose to read a book from a long running series. It often feels like you’re missing out but I’m glad you enjoyed i anyway.


  2. I like what I’ve read of this series, FictionFan, and a lot of it is exactly what you point out. It’s thoughtful and character-driven. It feels realistic, too, which is always a plus for me. I also like the relationship Wisting has with his children. Not that any of them is perfect, of course, but they’re a loving family and I think that’s portrayed effectively. Glad you enjoyed this one.


    • Yes, I thought it felt realistic too, and I liked Wisting’s relationship with his children – it felt natural and normal, which is rare in crime fiction! I’ll definitely look out for more of these… because obviously I need another long-running series on my TBR… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 😀 I like when each entry in a series works as a standalone – it makes it so much easier to join in halfway through and doesn’t leave me feeling as if I have to make a big commitment to read them all. I will look out for more of these though…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not read anything by this author, so I appreciate your taking time to introduce me to him and his works. This sounds most intriguing, especially as a departure from today’s action-predominant thrillers. I predict my TBR can handle one more!


    • Hurrah! I’m having more success tempting you recently! 😀 Yes, I enjoy the occasional action-packed thriller but not all the time – on the whole I prefer this kind of character-based story. I’ll look out for more from this author…


  4. I was delighted to see your sub-heading as I do love good character led crime fiction. Even by your standards starting at book twelve is quite a stretch and I’m sure you’ll catch up on the previous eleven before the month is out? I’m quite intrigued by Adrian Stiller though especially as you’re still on the fence about him…


    • Hahaha – I totally refuse to add all the others to my TBR! One at a time only! I was rather relieved to see that not all of them have been translated yet… 😉 Yes, I couldn’t decide if Stiller was going to be a baddie or a goodie in the long run, which makes him an intriguing character and a good contrast to Wisting who is definitely a goodie…


  5. I’ve been feeling my crime cup is full with existing authors but I am intrigued with this new one. I see that this book is the 12th in the Wistling series and that the last 7 books in the series are available (in English) in our library. So I’m ready to go!


    • Haha – only 7? Oh well, that’s not too many to add to the TBR… 😉 I’m always struggling to catch up with authors I’m already enjoying, but somehow I still can’t resist being distracted by new-to-me ones. Apparently it’s true – resistance IS futile!


  6. Thanks for the note about it working as a standalone. I always wonder how people manage to keep up with series reads that have a lot of books in them. I feel compelled to start at the beginning but then never return.

    I like a good character driven book. I haven’t read much crime fiction in a while. This could be one to pick up for a change of scenery. I also like that the husband apparently wasn’t the one involved in the disappearance of his wife. Too many books or shows take the approach and it is over done.


    • Ha – I’m dreadful for dropping into a series halfway through and then ending up feeling as if I have to catch up before the next one comes out, so I’m always glad when each book stands on its own.

      I’ve gone off crime fiction since it became full of all these domestic thrillers, but this felt more like a traditional police procedural. The Nordic writers don’t seem to have gone the psychological thriller route to the same extent…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I discovered Nordic writing recently and have really enjoyed the authors I’ve read so far. While I enjoyed your review, if I can’t start with the first book I’m not going to read any others though…


  8. I’m actually interested picking up some more books that sound like this one. My only experience in the crime/mystery genre (not sure if there’s an important distinction, that’s how little experience I have with this genre) is Agatha Christie- and the reason I love her books is how character driven they are- so I think I would be more interested in books like this than in the current crime department?


    • I tend to think of mystery novels as the older Golden Age ones where it’s all about whodunit. Contemporary crime tends to be grittier – often too gritty for my taste! I do find good contemporary police procedurals are more similar to the Christie feel than the psychological thrillers that are dominating the market at the moment. Have you tried Jane Casey? I always think she has the character-driven feel and concentration on suspects and clues that make Christie so enjoyable. But personally I’m enjoying vintage crime more than contemporary at the moment – ECR Lorac is well worth a look… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll have to add both Jane Casey and ECR Lorac to my list! I haven’t read any books by either! Yeah, I don’t really like books that are on the more gritty end. Though maybe I just don’t like books that are gritty for the sake of being gritty- if that makes any sense, haha. I think another reason I really like Agatha Christie is the way her books deal with complex relationships and examine what might drive someone to crime. I always think that kind of thing is fascinating and I know that is dealt with in a lot of modern crime/mysteries, I just haven’t found any that strike the right kind of balance for my taste.


        • I totally agree – I don’t mind if a book’s gritty if it feels necessary, but so often it’s just gratuitous and feels kinda sleazy. I’m always keener on motivation than on the actual brutality of crime and would always be more interested in, for instance, a murder within a family than in the gangster-style plot, or the serial killer (though I’ve liked the occasional one). I’m struggling a lot with contemporary crime ay the moment – I seem to abandon as many as I finish. Have you read Peter May? He’s another favourite of mine, especially his Lewis trilogy. And I loved Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series…


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