Saturday, February 20, 2021


SMOKE SCREEN by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, translated by Megan Turney (Orenda Books, 2021)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Oslo, New Year’s Eve. The annual firework celebration is rocked by an explosion, and the city is put on terrorist alert.

Police officer Alexander Blix and blogger Emma Ramm are on the scene, and when a severely injured survivor is pulled from the icy harbour, she is identified as the mother of two-year-old Patricia Semplass, who was kidnapped on her way home from kindergarten ten years earlier … and never found.

Blix and Ramm join forces to investigate the unsolved case, as public interest heightens, the terror threat is raised, and it becomes clear that Patricia’s disappearance is not all that it seems…

I'm a fan of both Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, as storytellers and just great blokes too (oh for the days when we all perhaps took for granted the many opportunities to hang out at crime writing festivals). So I was intrigued by their teaming up for a series starring Oslo cop Alexander Blix and online journalist Emma Ramm (interestingly the two protagonists reflect Horst and Enger's prior careers - though I don't know if this means they each write that particular character's viewpoint). 

SMOKE SCREEN opens with New Year's Eve celebrations at the harbour in Oslo, an icy borderline between one year ending and another beginning. But the year isn't the only thing to end as midnight approaches; a bomb goes off, and lives are lost. An investigation begins. Is it a terrorist attack - or something more targeted? The fact that among the victims is a woman some believe was involved with the disappearance of her own daughter ten years before, has Blix wondering if there was something more to the bombing than a random attack on the public at a busy time and place. 

After the explosive beginning, this novel settles into an absorbing tale that draws you in slowly and surely as Blix and Ramm both look to get to the bottom of both what happened at the harbour, and why, and what happened to little Patricia Semplass all those years ago (a case that still troubles Blix). 

Both are motivated by something more than just their professional roles. 

Horst and Enger almost lull readers with their smooth style as events unfold, setting us up for the revelations to come. Blix and Ramm are intriguing main characters, linked by tragedies and operating in ways similar and contrasting. It's a fascinating relationship. The characterisation and character interplay is good throughout, from our heroes to Blix's police partner Kovic to various individuals that crop up in the story: incarcerated father, grieving parent, immigrant hotel maid, and more.

There's a sense of humanity, and sorrow, throughout the book. Of the weight of actions taken and tragedies old and new. It's a clever tale that mesmerises more than hitting you over the head with obvious action or style. While at the same time it does pack some emotional oomph. 

A good read from two very good authors. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He writes about crime fiction for newspapers, magazines and websites in several countries, and has appeared onstage at festivals on three continents. He's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. 

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