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.
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.
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.