The Water Widow by Ella Griffiths

translated by J. Basil Cowlishaw

Quartet books, 1986.

First published in Norway 1977.

The second of Ella Griffiths's two novels that were translated into English, The Water Widow, is another engaging, brisk-paced investigation for detective brothers Sergeant Rudolf and Detective Karsten Nilsen of the Oslo police. The brothers were first encountered by English readers in Murder on Page Three.

The main plot of the book concerns Rudolf Nilsen’s investigation of the death of a man who was last seen complaining of bad toothache. The man, Georg Brandt, is in his 50s and lives alone – it is his elderly mother who reports his absence to the police after he misses a couple of regular visits to the nursing home where she lives. Rudolf spends most of the weekend asking Brandt’s colleagues in the mens’ clothes shop where he worked if they have any idea where he is, and questioning Brandt’s neighbours and landlord. He gets nowhere, but on Monday morning a dentist returns from a trip away and discovers a body in the treatment chair at his surgery.

Rudolf is in his 50s himself, an overweight policeman who is conscious of his age, his inability to climb stairs without getting completely out of breath, and feels guilty for shamefully ignoring his long-suffering wife while he works constant overtime.  He embarks on a diet and spends the entire book in a state of hunger. His younger brother Karsten is an alcoholic, having been abandoned by his long-term girlfriend Wendy. As the novel progresses, we realise there is a deeper side to Karsten, bought out by his unlikely partnership with a young rookie cop.

Aside from these personal factors, the novel is a crisp, well-observed investigation into the strange death of Brandt – the only real clue being that a couple of witnesses claim to have seen a person in full widow’s weeds leaving the dentist’s building in the relevant timeframe. By the classic methods of interviewing suspects, witnesses and following up all leads, Rudolf gradually realises that the crime must be connected to the drugs trade, and in particular a theft from a local hospital. The author is particularly strong on conveying the varied tragedies of drug addiction, which is not as embedded as in Sweden or Germany at that time (we are told) but increasingly has an iron grip on too many (mainly young) people.

The ending consists of too many events and hasty explanations, but as a whole the book is a classic police procedural, well-plotted and well-told.  I liked in particular in the characters and relationships of the brothers, and the author’s acute observations of several of the sad, pleasant and distinctly unpleasant people they encounter. What is more, this novel (and its predecessor) stand the test of time extremely well.

Review first posted at Petrona, November 2010.

This entry was posted in Books, Crime fiction, Europe, Mystery, Norway, Police procedural, Series, Social comment, Translated. Bookmark the permalink.

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