This reading group guide for 1222 includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anne Holt. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Exactly 1222 meters above sea level, a train traveling north from Oslo careens off of icy rails. The driver is killed, but miraculously, all 269 passengers survive. Trapped high in the mountains and facing the worst snowstorm in Norway’s history, the survivors seek refuge in an isolated mountain hotel that has withstood the winter’s furies for decades. Welcomed by the staff, they ought to be safe from the storm here. But as morning comes, a body turns up—and it is clear the death is no accident.
As the storm continues to rage, retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is asked to investigate the murder. Hanne, paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet taken when she was on the force, wants nothing more than to be left alone until outside assistance makes its way through the storm; but when another body turns up, she realizes she has no choice. As the tension between the passengers mounts, aggravated further by wild rumors about the secret cargo the train was supposedly carrying, Hanne, with the help of Berit, the hotel manager, and Dr. Magnus Streng, must attempt to keep the guests at bay and figure out who the killer is and what they want before the killer strikes again. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Hanne lives a somewhat contradictory existence; her wheelchair constantly attracts attention, but at the same time (as she observes): “The most important thing about the wheelchair is that it creates distance….It defines me as something completely different from all the rest, and is not uncommon for people to assume that I am stupid. Or deaf. People talk over my head, quite literally, and if I lean back and close my eyes, it’s as if I don’t exist. You learn a great deal this way.” (p. 23) What do you think of Hanne’s assessment of her disability, and its effect on her and the people around her? What was your initial impression of Hanne? How did it change as the novel progressed?
2. Hanne observes about Dr. Streng: “I got the feeling that the man consciously made use of his handicap. As soon as you began to overlook the circus-like appearance, he made sure he resembled a clown once again….The whole thing was very confusing.” (p. 13) Why do you think Hanne finds it so hard to understand Dr. Streng, when in some ways, they’re quite similar?
3. Hanne and Adrian form a bond of sorts as the novel progresses. What do you make of their relationship? Did you find it interesting that Hanne feels a sort of sympathetic pity for Adrian right from the get-go, but finds Veronica (a young woman who is equally troubled) cold and off-putting? At the close of the book, Hanne requests Adrian leave with her in her helicopter out of Finse. What do you envision happening after they take off?
4. The setting is obviously quite crucial to the novel; discuss the role it plays in the story.
5. Do you think Veronica is a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
6. Were you surprised by what the mystery cargo turned out to be? Were there any other twists which caught you off-guard?
7. Hanne does not congratulate herself on catching the killer, but rather, thinks of herself as a person who has essentially obliterated someone else’s life. What do you think of this observation? Do you feel that Hanne was right to reveal the killer’s identity the way she did? Did she have a choice?
8. At one point, Hanne observes the following: “Nobody was talking about Roar Hanson’s death any longer, nor about the safety of the guests….It was hard to understand [they] had just been told that yet another person had been murdered. On the other hand, a comparatively long time with the police had taught me that people have the phenomenal ability to let themselves be distracted by good news.” (p. 212) Discuss the passenger’s varied reactions to their situation as the storm and the tension both mount; were you surprised by anyone’s behavior? Did you find any reactions unrealistic? Shocking? How do you think you would respond under similar circumstances?
9. Dr. Streng asks Hanne some interesting questions about the definition of “good” on page 224 (see quote below). How would you answer him if he posed the very same questions to you? What do you think defines a person as good or bad? Was Veronica bad? Mikkael, for killing Muffe? What about the mother of the pink baby? “‘What does being a good person involve?’....’Does it involve doing good? Or…is it more a question of the ability to be aware of our inadequacies and deplore our faults? To take responsibility for the fact that we can’t manage to be good, I mean. In other words, is goodness an indication of our willingness to engage in an eternal struggle against the ego, or is it only the victor, the person who has already defeated his egoism, who can call himself good?’”
10. Using the following two quotes as a starting point, discuss the connections the author draws about fear and human behavior.
“‘Fear, ladies and gentleman, is often a question of quantity.’…. ‘Well, a swarm is obviously more dangerous than just one bee,’ mumbled Geir. ‘Not necessarily!’ Magnus Streng leaned forward. ‘Ask a beekeeper. Go to the expert! Ask a beekeeper!’”
(p. 129)“She was so afraid all the time without really being aware of it. I have also lived a life where I was constantly afraid without realizing that was what I was. Fear made me withdraw and retreat inside myself. In Kari Thue, the fear created anger…directed at far too many people.”
11. The author uses the locked-room setting to help explore ideas about human biases, racism, ethnicity, and religious discrimination. Discuss the various ways this is done, both obvious—as with Kari Thue and her anti-Muslim tirades—and subtle—Hanne observing how “Norwegian” everyone was being at several points. Then, consider these ideas in a real-world context. Do any anecdotes or personal experiences come to mind?
12. While trapped, the passengers are isolated from “outside” relationships yet they carry those relationships with them at all times. Discuss how this manifests itself in different ways using several character examples.
13. Dr. Streng has an interesting philosophy that he learned as a child: “My father didn’t say much….But it wasn’t really necessary for him to say anything. The message was clear enough: We are all needed. We are necessary here on Earth. Small and large, fat and thin, ugly and beautiful. I was good enough. I am
good enough.” (p. 189) What do you think of Dr. Streng’s philosophy? Do you have such a lesson that you live by?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. There are some great descriptions of food in the novel, from fluffy rolls with jam filling to perfectly cooked venison. For your next book club meeting try your hand at some Norwegian cuisine!
2. At one point, Dr. Streng observes that it is like they are in a Roald Dahl short story. Read The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl
, or perhaps a different, classic locked-room mystery such as Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None
to discuss at your next meeting.
3. Finse Station is indeed the highest railway station in Norway, 1222 meters above sea level. It also happens to be the location where the battle scenes on the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back
were filmed. Do some research on Finse, the station, and Finse 1222, the hotel at which the novel is set. Does it look like how you imagined?
4. Play a variation of the “if you were stranded on a desert island…” game! If you were snowbound in Finse, who would you take along for the ride? What five items would you bring?
A Conversation with Anne Holt What method do you use to plot out your books? Are you ever surprised by the turns the narrative takes?
All of my books are always very carefully planned out before I start the actual writing process. First I write a synopsis, up to a 100 pages, and also make a visual guide, which I put on the wall. Yet changes will be made along the way. The stories sometimes object to being “forced” in one direction. Once I actually finished a book and went to sleep happy and satisfied only to wake up in the middle of the night realizing that the murderer was the wrong person!Locked-room mysteries are extremely popular with writers and readers alike. What is it that compelled you to create one yourself?
Modern crime fiction is no longer primarily of the “whodunit”-type. Instead, “How could this happen?” is the essential question. With modern investigative-methods, there are so many devices and gadgets available that I wanted to write a crime novel taking place in the present but where the investigator didn’t have any tools at her service besides her own brain. That’s why it was necessary to place the story in a deserted environment, a classic locked-room mystery.Where did the idea for Hanne Wilhelmsen’s character come from? How is it different writing her now than when you first started?
The idea for Hanne Wilhelmsen came from my years at the Oslo Police Force. The fact that the police force was so unrealistically described in Norwegian crime novels had annoyed me for a long time. It wasn’t my intention to make Hanne the main character, but my audience got so attached to her.Have you spent time in Finse? What made you decide to set the novel there?
I’m often in Finse, at least a couple of times a year. Preferably in mid-winter, when the weather is really terrible and the hotel only stays open on random weekends. I have personally experienced being snowed in up there! The nicest time at Finse is in the spring, in May, when the skiing conditions are great, the sun is shining, and you have the beautiful countryside at your disposal. I chose to place 1222
in Finse because it is simply the only place in Norway where a large crowd of people (about 300) could conceivably be isolated for several days.Does your writing process change at all from one novel to the next? What do you enjoy most about it?
The writing process is pretty much the same every year. I do my research and plot-structure in the fall and devote the spring up until mid-summer to writing. Sometimes I take a whole year off, and then I just read. A lot!What do you think is the hardest aspect to writing a believable, suspenseful crime novel?
It is not that hard to create credibility, I must say. I have experienced life for quite a while now and I know what is true. Creating suspense is much more difficult. The most important thing is not to resort to easy solutions. I think the worst thing is when the author hasn’t planned out the whole plot until the very end, and therefore must rely on chance and coincidence to make the puzzle complete.You’ve worked as a lawyer, police officer, journalist, and Norway’s minister of justice. That’s such a varied, interesting background! What made you decide to turn to writing? Is there some other career you’d like to explore in the future? Is there any one job you miss particularly?
I live in a small country that offers many opportunities for its people. I have been lucky to have the chance to do so many things. Writing came naturally to me. I hope to write books for the rest of my life, and basically it’s too late to start doing something else!How does your background inform your fiction? Do you often pull from your real life experiences to create the dilemmas your characters find themselves in?
I’m a political person and I draw inspiration from what is going on around me. The crime novel is, in my opinion, the best and most appropriate genre to describe the shady sides of society, to mirror it. I live such a quiet, calm life and there is little to pull from there!You address many social issues in this book such as anti-terrorism, religious discrimination, and fear and its impact on human behavior. How do you decide what ideas and themes to explore while writing? Is it informed by the characters as you go along, or do you often have an issue in mind that you wish to tackle, and so create a character around that idea (for example, Kari Thue)?
Good question. I create my characters based on what and whom I need in order to tell a particular story. For an author, the casting is just as important as it is for a filmmaker.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Which character do you identify with most? Are any of the characters in 1222 based on people you know?
The most interesting part about writing is the chance it gives you to create. I don’t want to make it easy for myself and create characters out of real people. My characters are also fundamentally different from me, at least most of them. The challenge of being a writer is to create archetypes, not stereotypes. I hope I manage to do that.
Who are your influences as an author? What do you read when you're writing? What is your all time favorite crime novel?
It is impossible to choose an all time favorite novel, because it changes all the time. Life is not static, and neither is a person’s reading. Mystic River
by Dennis Lehane is, in my opinion, a very successful, modern crime novel. Influences? Everything I read, whether it is good or bad. I don’t read a lot while writing, but I prefer non-fiction books.
What’s next for Hanne Wilhelmsen? And for you?
Hanne will be back in a couple of years. I’m going full blast with new projects, but none featuring her at the moment.