A passenger train crashes at a tunnel in the Norwegian mountains near Finsenut during a terrible snow storm. There are 269 people on board but only one of them, the driver, is killed. The rest of the passengers are ferried to a nearby hotel, Finse 1222, so called because it is 1222 metres above sea level. Because the continuing storm is one of the worst in living memory, the stranded passengers will have to remain incarcerated while a rescue can be organised safely.
One of the passengers on the train is Hanne Wilhelmsen, who is en route to Bergen for some medical tests. Hanne retired from the Oslo police force some years ago after being shot and paralysed from the waist down during the climax of a corruption case. During the crash, Hanne’s thigh is impaled by a ski pole falling from a rack, so she’s not conscious when she’s transported to the hotel. Once she is awake, patched up and has her wheelchair, she gradually becomes oriented and finds out as far as possible how the survivors are situated, realising that there’s lots of tension in the air – much more than could be expected from the circumstances. There are also rumours that some of the Norwegian royal family were on board the train: the last carriage was sealed off, and there are several witnesses to the fact that the apartment on the top floor of the hotel has been taken over.
Hanne dismisses this theory, having an alternative explanation for the mysterious occupant(s) of the private carriage. She is an antisocial person, but reluctantly forms two alliances, one with the managers of the (impeccably run) hotel and the doctor who treats her injuries – they form a core team who essentially supervise events for the next few days – and another with runaway teenager Adrian, with whom Hanne identifies. Among the guests are a party of priests going to a conference, an unpleasant woman called Kari Thule, several businessmen clinging to their laptops, a traditional Kurdish couple, and a group of teenage girls on a sports tour. The enforced guests are quite dispersed: the hotel has a main building (containing rooms and apartments) but also several holiday homes in the grounds. Many of the passengers are in these (we are told well-stocked) outside buildings, but because of the terrible storm cannot communicate with the main hotel. This is significant, because the first morning after the crash, the dead body of one of the priests is found outside the front door of the hotel, almost covered by snow. Berit and Grier, the two managers, bring the body into the kitchen when it becomes apparent that the victim has been shot. Hanne, with her police credentials, is the obvious candidate for identifying the murderer – but she is not convinced by any means that this is a sensible or safe approach to try, compared with simply waiting for help to arrive. Matters threaten to escalate, as further dangerous events occur, and the mood of the guests swings alarmingly as various people from among them try to dominate or control events.
Reading 1222 is a mixed experience. On the one hand, it is a homage to Agatha Christie novels (explicitly noted in a few places) and the plot seems to be about who from the very large pool of suspects could have committed the crimes. However, a significant part of the book (which is told from Hanne’s perspective) is about Hanne’s tragic past in the police, her childhood and her relationship with her lover and their child. Hanne has appeared as the protagonist in several previous novels, but English-language readers know her only as a minor character in Anne Holt’s other series, about profiler Johanne Vik. Perhaps 1222 would have been more coherent had the reader been familiar with the background and awkward personality of Hanne from the start, instead of having to get to know her complex story at the same time as absorbing the plot of the current novel. There are a lot of briefly sketched characters for the reader to remember, as well as the question of the mysterious occupant(s) of the top floor, which leads to a somewhat unfocused whole.
I enjoyed reading 1222, but like some of the author’s earlier translated books, in particular DEATH IN OSLO (about the kidnapping of the American president on a visit to Norway) the political conspiracy elements are hints rather than being addressed. This leaves the end of 1222 somewhat hanging in the air – but Hanne is a fascinating character, and her powers of deduction are certainly equal to the task of uncovering the murder mystery on this occasion.