Book review: Dregs by Jørn Lier Horst

Jørn Lier Horst
Translated by Anne Bruce (from Norwegian)
Sandstone Press, 2011

Dregs is a very enjoyable, classic police-procedural novel featuring Chief Inspector William Wisting who lives and works in Stavern, a town on the coast south of Oslo. As the novel opens we are plunged straight into the story of how a training shoe containing a foot is washed up on shore. This is the second such find in the space of a week. The police have already investigated all reported missing people in the area, and have identified the names of four people who have disappeared in the past year and not been found. Can they link any of the names to the feet?

As well as being frustrated by an increasingly puzzling case, Wisting, at 51, is feeling his age. As the novel opens he has just been to see his doctor for a check-up, but never gets the time (or the nerve) to find out the results. Wisting is the grandson of one of Amundsen’s companions on his polar expedition; he’s a widower, living on his own but has started a relatively new relationship with Suzanne, someone he met during a previous case. Wisting has a journalist daughter, Line. At the moment she is working on a long feature article about the effectiveness (or not) of prison sentences as a deterrent. To this end, she plans to interview half a dozen or so convicted criminals who have served their time. One of these is a man from the Stavern area who shot and killed a policeman 20 years ago – hence Line is staying with her father while she prepares for and undertakes the interview. Wisting remembers the case well, and rather dislikes his daughter’s project, though wisely does not share this view with her.

Over time, some more feet are discovered as well as another missing person. The police team of Wisting and three colleagues follow up on the disappearances, and are pleased when some relationships become apparent: most of the disappeared had some connection with a particular care home, and two of them had children who subsequently married each other. By dint of questioning and DNA tests, the police discover the identity of the owner of the first foot, and of a third one when that is also washed up on shore, but cannot work out who the second one belongs to.

The novel continues its three themes: the details of the feet investigation; Wisting’s thoughts and personal concerns; and Line’s progress towards her article (and her romantic relationship with Tommy, an ex(?)-criminal, of whom Wisting disapproves but again sensibly keeps his own counsel). In terms of the case, the pacing of the novel is superb, in that more information comes to light gradually, so one experiences a sense of the police’s frustration without being bored at their lack of progress, and also one feels one can have a shot at trying to put the pieces together (which I sort of grasped in outline but did not manage to work out the precise details). Suffice it to say that the eventual explanation for the feet and their state works very well, and the outcome of the mystery is very well put together.

I loved everything about this book: the characters of the introspective, dedicated Wisting and his independent daughter are both interesting (as are the other police officers, though they are sketched quite briefly); the plain-speaking style of writing (and translation); and the way in which many small elements combine to create a complete picture, including input from witnesses and some scientific analysis of ocean currents that leads to the crucial breakthrough. What is slightly annoying for the first-time reader is that this novel is sixth in the series though first to be translated. Much of the back-story of Wisting and Line is therefore lost (though we are told some elements of it). This matters less as the book continues, as the plot increasingly takes over, but detracts slightly from the introductory chapters. The translation itself, so far as I can tell, is naturalistic and faultless.

As an aside, there are several similarities between this novel and the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell (though Horst is Norwegian and Mankell Swedish). On the basis of this first novel to be translated, I’d say that Horst’s novel is every bit as good as his Swedish predecessor. I emphasise that the two series are distinct, and distinctive, of course.

I would also add that the “feet” part of the plot in Dregs is very well done, a good balance of realism, lack of sensationalism and pragmatic straightforwardness. This contrasts considerably with the “severed feet” theme used in another recent book, Fred Vargas’s more fabular An Uncertain Place.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Read other reviews of this excellent novel by: Crime Fiction Lover and Simon Clarke,

About Dregs at the publisher’s website.

Video trailer for the book.