The Human Flies (2010) by Hans Olav Lahlum

For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, you’ll probably be aware that Hans Olav Lahlum is one of my favourite living authors. Lahlum is the author of the K2 series, which is set in 1960s/70s Oslo and has two central sleuths, Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen (K2) and his friend Patricia Louise Borchmann, who has been left paralysed from the waist down after being in a car accident many years ago. The events of WW2 and Norway’s role in it, is significant element of the stories, especially in The Human Flies (2010). I have already reviewed the third book in the series, The Catalyst Killing (2015), on the blog and I have also conducted an interview with Lahlum himself. The next book in the series, The Chameleon People is being released into English in September.

The Human Flies

But today’s review takes us back to the very start of the series, where the elderly Harald Olesen (who was a legendary hero of the resistance in Norway during WW2) is found shot in his flat. Yet this is no simple mystery to solve as it quickly becomes apparent that only someone from within the block of flats could have committed the murder due to the shot having been fired at close range. Though the question of how they managed it is at the forefront of K2’s mind, as the flat door and windows were locked and there were also witnesses on the stairs of flat block, which seemingly saw nothing. The time factor is a crucial one as it initially seems like no one could have had time to commit the crime and escape before the neighbours had rushed to Olesen’s flat. But which resident did it? Is it a conspiracy? Of course initially all of the residents seem ordinary and contented individuals, with nothing to hide and they were apparently all on good terms with the victim. This situation does not last for long as K2, aided by Patricia, peels back the respectable veneers of the residents, exposing their secrets and deep rooted traumas. More importantly he finds connections between Olesen and the various residents, connections which supply many motives for wanting revenge and murdering him. At the heart of this case though is a traumatic event which occurred during WW2, whilst Norway was occupied by the Nazis, and it seems like Olesen’s past actions have finally caught up with him. Yet the killer’s instinct for self-preservation means that Olesen is not going to be the only one who ends up dead, leading to a cat and mouse game between them and K2.

Overall Thoughts

Despite having read this book before and therefore knowing who the killer was, this was still an enjoyable re-read for me and I got many things from it. There is a definite link between this novel and the detective novels from the Golden Age, aside from the allusions Patricia makes to them. There is the initial impossible crime aspect, though Patricia soon makes mincemeat of that problem. Furthermore there is the closed set of suspects and like Christie’s The Murder on the Orient Express (1934), the setting of a block of flats allows for a plausible variety of suspects with different backgrounds and secrets to hide. In Christie’s work past events and misdeeds often come back to haunt characters in the present and they also often lead to murder and this aspect is also dominant in The Human Flies, which explores engagingly the long term effects trauma can have on people and their relatives. In addition Patricia, for me, embodies the role of Golden Age amateur or private sleuth. Aside from her intellect and logic, the way her eyes ‘twinkle’ when she has found a clue or an answer reminded me a lot of Poirot and in terms of personality there are some parallels between them. Poirot is often see as separate from the other characters around him because of his Belgian nationality and I think Patricia’s disability plays a similar role, as it physically cuts her off from the outside world (K2 often refers to her being in an ‘ivory tower’) and it also affects how she is perceived, with suspects underestimating her and believing her to be benign.

I previously mentioned that Patricia often alludes to Golden Age detective fiction writers and characters, such as when Patricia suggests that they gather the suspects together near the end of the novel: ‘And aesthetically, it does feel fitting that we do a Poirot and gather all the surviving parties together before the arrest.’ But what I found interesting is that some of these allusions write back to the genre they are referring to. For example when discussing early on whether a conspiracy between the residents is likely, Patricia says:

‘The first solution is very much like one of Agatha Christie’s best-known novels, in which all the characters have, for various reasons, conspired to kill the victim. In which case, you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on the other residents’ statements… But that kind of plot definitely works better in English novels than in daily life in Norway… If we let go of our paranoia and shelve the theory of a major conspiracy among the residents, there’s really only one possibility left.’

Patricia’s metafictional comment isn’t just referring to a Christie novel (which I’m sure we can all guess), but in some ways is evaluating it as well, jovially raising up the issue of artificiality. It is also a comment that attempts to draw a distinction between the novel and the Golden Age genre it draws on as well.

Patricia is still my favourite out of the sleuthing duo and I continue to find her an interesting character, who is often defined by her disability by others and sometimes by herself and I liked seeing how she perceives her disability. One of the strengths of this series is how the relationship between Patricia and K2 develops, as it is not entirely harmonious or balanced and in The Catalyst Killing I found K2 to be the poorer friend, castigating Patricia for faults he perceives in her, yet he still depends on her for solving his cases. In my review of The Catalyst Killing I looked at the fact that we never see Patricia from her own perspective, always K2s and the implications of this, and this is something which I have noted much more during my re-reading of The Human Flies, as I can see more overtly how K2 sets Patricia up as a character and how his perception of her is not always fair or accurate. One particular accusation K2 often uses against Patricia is making her out to be supercilious due to her rank in society and her wealth. In doing this he creates a divide between himself and her, giving the impression that he is from a much lower class. This is why I was surprised when I noticed during my re-read that he comments on himself belonging to ‘the upper class.’ Consequently this has left me wondering why K2 feels the need to therefore create a class divide between him and Patricia. Another a more uglier aspect of K2 is that he very openly with the reader admits how Patricia not wanting credit suits him fine and will inevitably be advantageous to his career. This side of him contributes to the way he sometimes sees Patricia less as a human being and more like a resource.

The class issue comes up in other ways in the novel and not just through K2 and something I found interesting both times I read this book is that two of the residents are involved in adultery. Yet the class and moneyed background of the woman being cheated on is used as a means of justifying the adultery. This re-read also reminded me how much I enjoyed the will reading scene in this novel, which although not showing humanity at its best, is absolutely hilarious if you are a spectator. The dangers of having heroes is another sensitively explored issue in this book, along with the theme of disability and I like how the complexity of having a disability is included in the story.

All in all an enjoyable re-read and I think this is a series everyone should try, as I think it has wide appeal to crime fiction fans. You don’t need to be a fan of Agatha Christie or Golden Age detective fiction to love this book.

Rating: 5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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20 Responses to The Human Flies (2010) by Hans Olav Lahlum

  1. Brad says:

    Sounds interesting, Kate . . . although, based on my minor exposure to Scandinavian crime fiction (basically, the Wallander TV series and Stieg Larssen), is EVERYONE in these books a Nazi??? It feels like they’re always either trying to bring back the Third Reich, molesting their children, molesting someone ELSE’S children or drinking, drinking, drinking!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes I normally have the same problems that you do, but this is why this series is perfect for people like us and it is not like Wallander or Stieg Larssen. There is no graphic violence (don’t be put off by the title – it’s a metaphor not a literal statement) or molesting of children. One character is an alcoholic but is a minor character you see once. Not everyone is a Nazi and in this case it is more that a couple of the characters were involved with the NS party during German occupation of Norway, which takes place 20 years prior to the novel. There is nothing about bringing Nazism back. I think you will love the characterisation and narrative style in this book.

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    • Oh and I would recommend The Scent of Almonds and Other Stories by Camilla Lackberg – which is comprised of a novel (which has some parallels to And Then There Were None) and three short stories. Again not like Larssen or Wallander. I did a review on this collection a few weeks ago I think (it’s hard to keep track) if you want any more info on it.

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    • JJ says:

      Tell you what, Brad — if the perceived lack of characterisation in the likes of Rupert Penny irks you, I’d be interested to know what you make of K2. Never have I spent so long with a charatcer (two books now) and come away knowing so little about them!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Which character is this? I presume you mean K2 and not Patricia, as due to K2 doing the narrating he tells us a fair bit about her. And although we don’t know lots of back story about K2 I think we are able to discover a lot about his personality and how he interacts with others, which I suppose interests me more than what he did at his 6th birthday party or similar hard facts.

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      • JJ says:

        I take your point about hard facts, but I didn’t feel we learned anthing about him at all — all his interactions with the suspects and his superiors and Patricia and her father and, well, everyone felt exactly the same to me. Apart from his inability to think anything through and therefore need to run to Patricia with every tiny development so she could do his thinking I genuinely couldn’t tell you a single thing about him that would help explain his character to someone who hadn’t read the books.

        Weird, innit?

        Liked by 1 person

      • You make an interesting point. I suppose because I find the P and K2 relationship the most interesting one especially in regards to how K2 treats P and how he portrays her, that I haven’t really thought about his interactions with others so much, though he does have a weakness for a pretty face. I find K2 to be quite a user of P in some ways, so I tend to side with P. Perhaps if someone else did some of the narrating we would have another way of finding stuff out about K2. I hadn’t realised you had read the second K2 book. What did you make of it aside from K2 unfathomableness?

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      • JJ says:

        I struggled manfully with Satellite People and then had to give up just over halfway through — really didn’t get on with it at all. I feel that all the press making comparisons between it and to Christie and her ilk was unwarented flattery and something of a comment on just how far this type of detective fiction has fallen: it bore only the vaguest resemblance to the cunning invention, and intelligence of those classics — and even then only because of the setup. Once you get past those very facile comparisons it fell down in every single regard for me, alas.

        But, y’know, I love the detective fiction of Rupert Penny, so I appreciate that my opinion on most things is immediately suspect…

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      • Yes I would agree that the Christie parallels are more apparent in the first novel and Lahlum himself has commented on different author influences on his writing. Sorry this series hasn’t worked out for you.

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      • JJ says:

        Given the enthusiastic reaction to this series overall, it would appear that I’m the one missing out, so I feel that I should be apologising to you! I’ll probably skip Catalyst Killing for now and try Chameleon People when it comes out in paperback, because i believe Lahlum could be very good indeed, but just needs to find his way a bit so that his output and my tastes are slightly more aligned.

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      • Well I admire your perseverance. And I’ve found out this evening that there is actually three short stories/novellas between the third and fourth book in the K2 series. But they haven’t been translated yet. Although I have been reliably informed that you don’t need to have read these novellas in order for the fourth book to make sense.

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    • ravenking81 says:

      Bernhard Borge wrote several crime novels in the 1940’s and there is no reference to World War 2 or Nazis in them. No child molesters, no alcoholics. They are just classic puzzle mysteries with no politics, although there is a strong psychological element which makes them seem more modern. I am kind of surprised Pushkin Press hasn’t republished any of Borge’s work. After all he is such a well-respected writer in his native Norway.

      I also recently read what is supposed to be the first Norwegian detective novel Sven Elvestad’s “The Iron Chariot”. It came out in 1909. No Nazis to be found there either. It is a classic tale of detection. I am told that this was also the first book to use a certain narrative technique later immortalised by Agatha Christie in one of her masterpieces.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t heard of Borge before so thanks for the recommendation. I shall have to get googling. I have heard of Elvestad though from an article in CADs. Meant to get a hold of a copy but forgot so thanks for the reminder.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ravenking81 says:

        You are welcome 

        Borge’s real name was André Bjerke, he wrote under several pseudonyms and published his detective novels under the nome de plume Bernhard Borge. He also collaborated with another famous Norwegian crime writer Bjørn Carling alias Erik Vendel about whom I know very little, but apparently he was another star of Scandinavian crime fiction back in the days before Sjöwall & Wahlöö took over and established the sociocritical police procedural as we know it today.

        Liked by 1 person

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  5. JFW says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂 I’ve just finished ‘Human Flies’, and despite its length and slightly slower pacing at points, I enjoyed it as a whole. In fact, its faithfulness to the Golden Age mould meant that I remained interested for much of the story – and I’m the sort of reader who grows impatient quite quickly past the 200-page-mark. I found the characterisation engaging as well, incorporating the Scandinavian crime genre’s sympathetic eye for suffering and darkness in human existence without overshadowing the wider concern of drawing the reader into a classical puzzle. If anything, I felt that the novel was let down by its ending: it didn’t have a sufficiently classical solution to what felt like a classical puzzle. But on the whole I enjoyed the novel enough to seek out the subsequent instalments. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed this one and hope you enjoy the rest in the series. Lahlum is probably my favourite Scandi crime writer as his writing does have qualities which appeal to the GAD fan, but I also think he is able to render a great deal of pathos of well and I found myself quickly getting invested in the sleuthing characters. The chosen time period also makes it an interesting read.

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