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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