‘Had I understood the reason for her behaviour there and then, it might not only have saved her life, but also the lives of several other people.’
Having loved the previous two in the series (The Human Flies and The Satellite People), I was eager to start the third, The Catalyst Killing, which has just come out this September. And it definitely did not disappoint, with a dramatic ending which leaves you stunned. The first two in the series are set in late 1960s Oslo, featuring Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen, nicknamed in the press as K2, who is heavily supported by the detecting abilities of amateur sleuth and old family friend, Patricia Louise I. E. Borchmann. In this particular partnership Patricia is definitely the brains and K2 the brawn, as not only is it her ideas which solve the cases, but like Hercule Poirot who discovered the truth without moving from his flat in the short story ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’ (1924), in The Catalyst Killing, Patricia solves the mounting murder cases and prevents another one, from her own home. Although, her reason for doing so, is not because of an inflated ego but because after a car crash which killed her mother, she became paralyzed from the waist down and is confined to a wheel chair.
The Catalyst Killing takes place in 1970 Oslo and Lahlum recreates an atmosphere bristling with political thought and activity. The novel is predominantly written from K2’s point of view. It begins with a young woman missing a train that K2 is on, begging him to stop the train using the emergency cord. Yet she is not a commuter desperate to catch the train home, she’s running for her life:
‘It was however, her face that struck me. It was a frozen mask of fear.’
K2’s concern about her is well founded, as he is later called that night back to the station to investigate her death, as she has been found shot on the tracks. Her name is Marie Morgenstierne, a student who had been part of a communist based political group, which had been run by Falko Reinhardt, her fiancée, before he disappeared two years ago to the day. K2’s boss instructs him to not only discover the murderer of Marie but to also to find out what happened to Falko. With such a daunting task K2 without hesitation requests Patricia’s help.
To investigate both cases, K2 interviews the remaining members of the political group:
- Trond Ibsen, a psychologist with an inability to attract women;
- Anders Pettersen, devoted to Falko but keen to assert his dominance over the group in his absence;
- Kristine Larsen, who is probably the most affected by Falko’s disappearance and
- Miriam Filtvedt Bentsen, who is actually based on one of Lahlum’s primary advisors. This character is supposed to represent political optimism, according to the afterword and in the story had left the group a year ago to join the SPP. She is a troubling aspect of the case for K2, who with a weakness for a pretty face, becomes increasingly drawn to her.
Falko’s disappearance still affects them, as well as his parents, none of them knowing whether he is alive or dead. It all occurred on a trip to Valdres, where at 2am Marie screams alerting the rest of the group that Falko has disappeared. It appears he could not have left the cabin through the door or the windows which were locked from the inside. Are the group members lying, to cover up a dark secret? Or is this indeed a locked room mystery? No body was ever found, only his shoes by the cliff. Many theories abound as to what happened. Is he’s dead was it politically motivated? A murder caused by sexual jealousy? Was the mole, which many members suspected had infiltrated the group responsible? Or was it because Falko was working on a masters thesis looking at a Nazi network in Norway, which was apparently still active? And do the police security service fit in to all this, as it is known they were doing surveillance on the group? If Falko is still alive, the question remains why he has remained in hiding for so long?
In many ways what makes this such a difficult case, in particular Marie’s murder, is that it is committed in an open space, meaning it is hard to have a finite set of suspects. Her flat leaves little evidence over than a note declaring that Marie was responsible for Falko’s death, ending with an ominous deadline. But both cases are propelled forwards towards a conclusion with the reappearance of an unexpected figure, bringing in their wake a warning of an imminent attack, a political assassination. But as time is running out and the body count is rising, K2 and Patricia have to figure out not only the who’s, what’s and when’s of this attack, but they still have to solve their existing cases. It is not without good reason that Patricia says:
‘It seems to me that we are running against time to prevent an even greater catastrophe.’
The cases are brought to a close at an exhilarating pace and especially in the case of who killed Marie, the solution is not revealed until the last moment. Yet after solving what could be considered as incredibly baffling cases this novel does not end on a celebratory note. There is a temporary anxiety over a civilian casualty. Moreover, in order to solve the mysteries a lot of people are left hurt. Each of the titles in the series, is a reference to the way Patricia describes each case. In this instance, Marie is the catalyst of many other deaths and suffering, having poignant and painful repercussions for those responsible. The way the cases intermesh it is not without reason that the author says it shares some similarities with Greek tragedy. However, the greatest disaster is what occurs between Patricia and K2, the latter of whose emotions spill over and castigate Patricia for her alleged coldness and jealousy. Even worse K2 delivers this diatribe at possibly one of the most painful moments in Patricia’s life. Unlike the unobservant K2, who is rather self-absorbed and self-interested, the reader is increasingly aware that not all is well within the personal life of Patricia. Of course, K2 realises all of this too late and it is with baited breathe, that I await to see how and if their relationship can be repaired in the next book which is due to come out “soon”: The Chameleon People.
What makes this novel more than just a puzzle or mystery to solve is the problematic and evolving relationship between K2 and Patricia, as mentioned above. In many ways this book has revealed a much more unpleasant and unappealing side of K2. Despite never interacting with Patricia socially (even Inspector Japp had the occasional dinner with Poirot) and the fact that he has not contacted her in 15 months, he just presumes that Patricia will help solve the cases for him. More gallingly he seems to think that by doing so he is doing her a service:
‘It had become part of the world order that we both took for granted; I needed her help to solve my murders, and she needed my help to give her life meaning.’
Whereas, this is not entirely the case and it is not without great personal cost that Patricia helps to solves these particular crimes. Moreover, regardless of the fact that without Patricia he would not have successfully concluded these cases, as at times he is more like Conan Doyle’s Watson in his ability to analyse and romanticise a case, he frequently denigrates and patronises (as shown in the example above) Patricia. For example, he portrays her as bossy and emotionally distant and unsympathetic such as ‘it sounded more like an order than a question’. He also asserts their age difference, as he is approximately a decade older than the 20 year old Patricia. K2 deliberately tries to manipulate her emotionally in to revealing jealousy towards one of the suspects and he also makes comments such as ‘the teenage gossip in Patricia reared her head again’. Yet any concern she has over K2 and his attention to pretty faces, is not unfounded, considering what occurred in The Satellite People. In addition, in regards to matters of the heart, he consistently gets annoyed by Patricia’s apparent jealousy, yet does not question his own jealous feelings towards her. This double standard is another example of how I think K2 uses Patricia and is not a proper friend, visiting her only until the case is finished and being oblivious to any problems she might be going through. I think that because K2 mostly narrates the novel and Patricia never at all, accentuates K2’s failings in the relationship and I think it would be interesting to see in future novels Patricia’s own thoughts.
This is a book I would highly recommend as the plot is gripping, making you want to read it all in one sitting. The themes of the book are well interwoven, taking it beyond a puzzle to complete and I think Patricia is an amazing character. The book includes brief references to the other two in the series, which could help anyone new to the series, meaning you don’t necessarily have to start with the first book. Although The Human Flies and The Satellite People are both amazing books as well, so I would also recommend them.
With the bombshell which was dropped at the end of the book I am eager to read the next book in the series, The Chameleon People, when it is translated into English, (oh how I wish I could read Norwegian) and see how the K2 and Patricia alliance continues and also to see whether a romantic spark ignited in this book, makes it into the next one.