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1222, By Anne Holt

Chilling tale stays on the right track

Aficionados of crime fiction's golden age sometimes rather prissily praise its avoidance of sexual misdemeanours. The few permissible were unlikely to upset the status quo – adultery and illegitimate children. Agatha Christie, whose cloistered locales are echoed in Anne Holt's 1222, dropped the occasional sexually ambiguous character into her murderous scenarios. But what would she have made of Holt's steely sleuth, Hanne Wilhelmsen, who is married (with a child) to her lesbian partner?

This new broadmindedness in crime fiction removes some useful plot devices: there are fewer secrets to expose. But the best writers can leap over that challenge with ease, and Holt deftly marshals her perplexing narrative. In a tunnel under the Norwegian mountains, a train crash results in only one fatality: the driver. The survivors – nearly 300 – are transported during a snowstorm to a hotel nearby: Finse 1222.

As attempts are made to move the stranded passengers to safety, another lethal force begins to wreak mayhem. People are being murdered one by one, and a new terror is added to the suffering of those holed up in 1222. But among the survivors is a difficult, antisocial woman who has had a ski pole driven into her thigh in the train wreck.

This isn't her only handicap. Hanne Wilhelmsen, retired from the Oslo police, is paralysed from the waist down after being shot on duty. She is, however, still a formidable opponent, as the unknown murderer is about to learn.

If the basic set-up sounds a touch tired, don't be fooled. There is a great deal of mileage still left in the well-worn tropes that Holt has channelled. The clichés are resolutely seen off by the sheer energy and vitality of her writing.

The author (who cleverly parleys plot elements gleaned from her period as a minister of justice in Norway) makes a telling stab at the contemporary conscience, with disquisitions on the shifting sands of modern morality or the tendency of laudably intentioned people to be swept into mob violence. But such serious concerns are never worn on the sleeve; the large cast of potential victims is handled with prodigious skill – as is the uncompromising, short-fused heroine. As for the plot itself, it moves with the speed of the ill-fated train – but, unlike the train, Anne Holt's storytelling never comes off the rails.