Oslo, 1938. When a woman turns up at the office of police-turned-private investigator Ludvig Paaske, he and his assistant – his one-time nemesis and former drug-smuggler Jack Rivers – begin a seemingly straightforward investigation into marital infidelity. But all is not what it seems, and when Jack is accused of murder, the trail leads back to the 1920s, to prohibition-era Norway, to the smugglers, sex workers and hoodlums of his criminal past and an extraordinary secret…
Following K. O. Dahl’s previous historically based crime standalone, The Courier, set in post war Norway, we are now transported to the pre-war period, where unrest and uncertainty is growing, and life is on the brink of change as the fascism movement begins to insidiously tighten its grip on Europe…
Being quite familiar now with Dahl’s writing, and the pincer grip on both narrative and dialogue that he always exhibits in his Oslo detective series, and the assured, beautifully researched historical detail of The Courier, this book skilfully marries both aspects of his writing together. Consequently we have two distinct timelines in the 1920/30s, which serves to place the reader in a very specific period of both Norwegian and European history, referencing the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin et al, playing out as a sinister backdrop to a tale encompassing smuggling, espionage, jealousy and betrayal.
Kjell sets the scene beautifully in the 1920s period where the smuggling of alcohol and fuel proves to be a lucrative, if somewhat exploitative side line, in an age of Prohibition and growing poverty. This is where we first encounter Jack Rivers, a two-bit criminal eking out a living, working for the grasping Arvid Bjerke, and police officer Ludvig Paske, whose relentless pursuit of Rivers makes for an interesting dynamic later in the book, when they begin working together in Paske’s detective agency. Dahl keeps the scope of European events and how they are reflected in Norway front and centre, so the reader is torn between the intrinsic need of the masses for the black market smuggling, but also the questioning of who ultimately really benefits from this exploitation.
There is a real echo of Raymond Chandler throughout the book, not only in the running of Paske’s detective agency, with both he and Rivers falling for the alluring charms of a couple of archetypal femme fatales, but also in the way that Kjell draws his characters. He mirrors Chandler in using a snapshot approach when depicting the characters in the book, so we see small, lightly described pieces of a person’s visage and attire rather than an intricately detailed picture, and it works to great affect. Consequently, all the key details of a person’s appearance or how they hold themselves actually conveys quite a lot to the reader in terms of their character and behavioural traits. For example Bjerke reminded me of an unscrupulous car dealer just from his physical description, and Paske, as what we would take as an upstanding former police officer, was immediately flagged as shifty to my mind. Kjell also employs the tactic of not painting all of his characters as solely good or bad, and there are some wonderful shades of grey playing around them, particularly in relation to his female characters, where their own exploitative and scheming actions are sometimes masking a sense of fragility at the root of their characters, particularly in the case of Rivers’ erstwhile lover, Amalie.
As the back story and the present of The Assistant begin to weave together, giving us a gradually unfolding picture of the nature of the relationships between the characters, Dahl moves us slowly to an unexpected ending, wrought with duplicitous acts and a heightened sense of emotional betrayals. The meandering pace of the book to this point, makes the harshness of the ending all the more impactful, and subtly toys with the reader’s empathy as the extent of the betrayals wreaks havoc on more than one character. This, taken beside the precise historical detail and cleverly pared down characterisation, make this a book to be savoured. Recommended,
Kjell Ola Dahl was born in the city Gjovik, in Norway in 1958, but grew up in Oslo. Dahl was a teacher and social adviser in High school when he started to write the Oslo Detectives series. Two times Dahl has won the Riverton-prize, the Norwegian National prize for the best novel of crime fiction (in 2000 and in 2015). He won the prestigious Brage-prize for the Courier, a standalone novel of crime fiction set in Norway and Sweden during World War II and in 1967. The first book in the series of the Oslo Detectives – Lethal investments – was published in in Norway 1993. Dahl lives on the farm Torgunrud in Feiring, by the lake Mjosa. Read more at kjelloladahl.no
(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)
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