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when it grows dark

9 august 2017

"Inspector's first case" is a well-developed subgenre of crime writing. We meet most detective inspectors midcareer. They are well set in their ways; they're sometimes minor celebrities. We may hear something of their backstories as their series thread their way along, but only late in such characters' fictional lives do we roll back the clock and see them as junior investigators, prequel-like. Even just here at lection, over the years, I have reviewed the "first cases" of Montalbano, Ghote, Erlendur, and Wallander – and the genre goes back at least to the 1940s and La première enquête de Maigret.

In reading When It Grows Dark, the newest of Jørn Lier Horst's William Wisting novels, I have accidentally transposed the usual sequence and started with the earliest in the character chronology – a story that comes eleven novels into the composition and publishing sequence. Prefatory material tells me that Wisting is "now" a senior commissaire in the Norwegian town of Larvik. In 1985, however, he was a young beat cop, recently married with twin infants, yearning for the puzzles of the CID instead of the everyday routine of police patrol.

As Erlendur and Wallander did, the young Wisting must find his first case for himself before proceeding to solve it. Actually the case sort of comes to Wisting: a friend asks him to help out with assessing the value of an old car, mouldering in a barn since the 1920s. They poke around the barn a bit and establish that the car sure is old, but something about the way the barn is locked up nags at Wisting. Later on, he is chasing some bank-robbery suspects when he notices that their trail goes cold near the old-car barn. Can there be a connection between the crimes of 1985 and the mystery of 1925?

At some cost to his stressful home life, Wisting finagles enough overtime to give the ancient car the full cold-case treatment. He makes a lot of rookie mistakes. When the inevitable withered corpse materializes in the barn, an old sealed letter found nearby promises to tell the whole story. Wisting stupidly hands the letter over to its addressee, the dead man's widow. She palms the key page of the letter, and it takes him another 30+ years to recover it.

By that time, of course, Wisting is an honored senior detective inspector, and hero of ten previous Krimis. I will have to go back and read as many of them as have been translated into languages I can read. Anne Bruce has now translated six into English, but a couple of earlier ones are available in German editions. When It Grows Dark promises that the whole Wisting series is straightforward, and agreeably so. Wisting sees investigations as clear-cut, though not as mathematical puzzles. If he thought that the car-in-the-barn mystery was simply a matter of deduction, the lies and evasions of the living witnesses teach him otherwise. He has a knack for questioning and observation, and neither idealizes nor demonizes other people. He will need those qualities for the series of baffling investigations that are already on the books.

Horst, Jørn Lier. When It Grows Dark. [Når det mørkner, 2016.] Translated by Anne Bruce. Dingwall: Sandstone, 2017.