Here’s the image that came to mind when, after fourteen hours, I reached the end of ‘The Witch Hunter’ audiobook:
It started well, plodded in the middle, picked up again towards the end and then… disappeared into an ending so anticlimactic and so self-consciously literary that it made the previous thirteen and half hours seem like a wasted investment.
The book is dressed-up to look like a Nordic Noir police procedural with some occult twists. The central conceit is interesting – the wife of a Finnish author, whose sensational trilogy about the hunting of witches by the inquisition has become a global best-seller, is murdered in a way that matches a killing in one of his books. The set-up is spectacular and creepy, the author is easy to dislike, and the body-count keeps rising as other spectacular and unpleasant scenes are copied by the killers.
There’s loads of potential here: lots of murders in a very short time period, killings that are so complicated and so closely choreographed that they seem like an opera staged for the police, an expert team of talented but quirky Helsinki police officers tirelessly working through the clues that they know the bad guys are using to lead them by the nose. It’s all good stuff but it turns out that tracking down serial killers with an obsession with the occult and a flair for the dramatic is not really what not to be what Max Seeck really wants to write about.
His heart is set on telling the story of the lead investigator, Jessica Niemi, a woman with a dark past who hides her wealth and even her real name from all of her colleagues except her immediate superior.
Again, this approach had lots of promise. It was clear that somehow Jessica and her dark past are key to understanding the motivation behind the murders so the two narratives, catch the killers/ share Jessica’s backstory, should have reinforced one another.
Except they didn’t. The backstory, describing nineteen-year-old Jessica’s ultimately traumatic time in Venice, was clumsily shoved into the catch the killer narrative in a way that felt like an interruption rather than an elucidation. The back story plods along, fed to us at apparently random intervals, and is at first a little flat and then more than a little unpleasant but never really found traction.
I found that there was very little about Jessica Niemi to make me care about her. The slow reveal of her tragic past didn’t build the empathy that it could have because there was very little about her actions in the present that made her interesting.
The book picked up pace about three-quarters of the way through and I thought we were on track to a big finish. We had found out who the bad guys were. We knew why they’d done what they’d done and how they did it and we had multiple good guys in mortal danger. We even knew how Jessica’s time in Venice ended.
Then it all fizzled out. The ending went somewhere unexpected and only partially explained. The final chapters were a return to the author’s real interest: the complicated past and disturbed present of Jessica Niemi.
There is a second Jessica Niemi book that has yet to be translated into English. It won’t be finding its way onto my TBR pile.