Book Review: The Water Widow by Ella Griffiths

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.

I purchased a second-hand copy of this novel.

My review of Murder on Page Three.

Euro Crime post in which I first heard about this author.

When I posted my review of Murder on Page Three, the translator, J. Basil Cowlishaw, kindly left a comment. I reproduce part of it here as some fascinating background about the author. “It’s years ago that I translated it [Murder on Page Three], along with The Water Widow and a handful of Ella Griffiths’s short stories, one of which was adapted for television by Anglia. Ella was my first (but fortunately not my last) Norwegian girlfriend when I came here in May 1945 with the RAF during the Liberation. We lost touch in the intervening years, but someone gave her my name as a translator and we managed to get our act together and as a result she was published in the UK. She died about ten years ago.”

Ella Griffiths at Wikipedia (Norwegian)


One thought on “Book Review: The Water Widow by Ella Griffiths

  1. Margot Kinberg said…
    Maxine – Excellent review, as ever :-). What an interesting book, too. It’s not often that an author is able to create a well-moving, structured and logical police procedural and still create interesting characters. It sounds as though this one is a good combination of the character-study sort of crime fiction novel, and the police procedural. And I’m intrigued by the fraternal relationship. I just think sibling relationships are fascinating in fiction, especially when they are complicated. As though I didn’t have enough on my TBR list!!!!! 😉

    Reply 12 November 2010 at 18:42

    Dorte H said…
    Oh, just for a second I thought it was *Elly* Griffiths.

    Well, this one doesn´t sound bad either. I don´t mind *reading* about dentists.

    It is so funny, though, that I have hever heard the least about this Norwegian writer in Scandinavia.

    Reply 12 November 2010 at 20:25

    Maxine said…
    The story of how Karen discovered the existence of “Ella” Griffiths (as opposed to “Elly”) is at the Euro Crime link in the post above, Dorte – worth a look!

    Reply 12 November 2010 at 20:36

    Norm said…
    I don’t mind reading about dentists either. ;o)
    Reply 12 November 2010 at 22:12

    Dorte H said…
    Maxine, I do remember. Probably because it is a Scandinavian writer.

    Reply 13 November 2010 at 16:01

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