Source: Review Copy (Mantle – Pan Macmillan)
It is probably fair to say that this is the book I have been looking forward to the most this year, being a major fan of Lahlum’s K2 series. Chameleon People (2016) is the fourth book in this series and between this book and the previous one, The Catalyst Killing (2015), there are three short stories/novellas, set in Oslo in 1971. But unfortunately they are only available in Norwegian. Thankfully Lahlum told me it is not essential to read these before the fourth novel, though of course I hope they will be translated into English at some point. The only key plot event English readers miss out on is that K2 is now engaged to Miriam Filtvedt Bentsen (who first appears in the third novel).
Chameleon People is set in Oslo, 1972 and again is narrated by K2. Despite having originally been published in 2013, the political context of the book is eerily pertinent to current times as in the background of this story is a Norwegian referendum on entering the EEC (European Economic Community) and although in the background it is still an emotive and explosive topic. In fact there are questions over whether this issue is involved in the primary killing of this book, as typified when Miriam says:
‘There are a lot of powerful and frightening emotions out there in the dark at the moment… Parents and children have stopped speaking to each other and a lot of people are worried about their partners and their jobs. I don’t think anyone would kill in connection with an election in Norway, but I’m not so sure anymore that some fanatic or other might not kill in connection with the referendum.’
As to this primary killing, it happens within a matter of pages with politician and millionaire businessman, Per Johan Fredriksen, being stabbed to death. The police are in pursuit of a juvenile suspect, yet their quarry is easy to arrest since he is cycling in search of a policeman himself, K2 in fact, and he is desperate to tell him that he is innocent, despite having the bloodied weapon in his pocket. K2 wants to believe him but the circumstantial evidence against him is high and equally the suspect does not try to help himself, he won’t even reveal his name.
K2 is keen to call his old friend and amateur sleuth, Patricia Borchmann, but due to efforts near the end of The Catalyst Killing, their relationship is still distant and fractured, with K2’s engagement causing another area of conflict: ‘The uncertainty as to where Patricia and I now stood had hung over my otherwise charmed existence like a dark cloud.’ Consequently Patricia doesn’t become involved in the story until much later, though in many ways she becomes a spectre in the earlier parts of the book, with K2 being reminded of her in other people. As the investigation progresses, a lot of other potential suspects emerge due to the victim’s infidelity, controlling nature over money and people and there is even an unsolved murder case in their past, which Fredriksen has recently said he has now solved. The fraught world of politics also has its’ role to play in K2’s investigation. K2 believes this to be his most difficult case yet, a case which will have personal repercussions and further deaths, some of which will haunt K2 and others in time to come.
Patricia, K2 and Miriam
These three characters undoubtedly create a very awkward triangle, a personal situation which does have implications for the case K2 is working on. Although Miriam initially encouraged K2 to maintain contact with Patricia, in this story Miriam acts in reverse, fuelled by a need for K2 to turn to her for help on cases rather than Patricia, ‘the genius of Frogner.’ K2 throughout the story is a divided man, with his ‘eyes on Miriam and [… his] mind on Patricia.’ His career success is significantly based on Patricia’s help and because of this help he has gained a ‘status as hero in both the police force and the general public.’ But when the case shows little signs of being solved soon and he fears a loss of public approval, K2 gives into temptation and seeks Patricia’s help, help which he plans to keep hidden from Miriam. It is at moments like this that I felt some sympathy for Miriam, though overall I am still a huge Patricia fan. In this novel and in The Catalyst Killing, K2 has increasingly become a problematic and fallible hero character, who frequently likes to make other people’s issues and actions about himself, and I have wondered whether in some ways he is more of an anti-hero figure. It is these issues surrounding K2 which perhaps make him an interesting narrator to follow.
The Boy on the Bicycle
‘there is still a considerable difference between being strange and being guilty…’
Although uninvolved in much of the book, the juvenile suspect who wants K2’s help, was a character who interested me. The boy is intellectually very bright but he does have certain physical difficulties such as a limp and a speech impediment and socially other characters find him hard to read. For instance K2 is unsure how to perceive him, noting a positive attitude towards himself, yet also wondering how to respond to a boy who just ‘stare[s] at me, his face completely blank.’ K2 goes on to be baffled by the boy’s ‘resigned, almost patronising expression,’ though K2 does begin to revaluate his initial impressions of him: ‘I started to wonder whether I was dealing with someone who was retarded, or if this was an intelligent person who, for some unknown reason, did not want to say anything.’ As I mentioned earlier the boy does not really try to help himself, saying little, most of which is often in riddles pertaining to historical figures, likening himself to both Marinus Van Der Lubbe and Richard Hauptmann. The boy also proves an interesting character as it is through him that the issue of disparity in population wealth is introduced, as in contrast to Fredricksen, the boy is very poor and this is a theme the text returns to.
Looking at the four novels as a whole I noticed that three of the primary victims were wealthy older men, with businesses and/or political careers and they also tended to have skeletons in the closet, which are related to their violent demises. I think with these characters Lahlum is able to look at double standards and begin a societal critique dialogue. Moreover, their business and political careers also open up a plethora of motives for killing them.
In each of the novels the titles are derived from names Patricia gives either the victims or the suspects in the case. For instance the first title, The Human Flies (2010), is a reference to the suspects who for one reason or another are like flies continually hovering around a painful episode from their pasts. Chameleon people as defined by Patricia are those who ‘move seamlessly between different circles and switch appearances depending on where they are [,…] they can change their face, behaviour and even personality within seconds depending on what they think will serve their interests.’ Yet I think Chameleon People, is probably the most expansive of these phrases coined by Patricia, as not only does it refer to the victim, Fredricksen who ‘often appeared different in different settings’ and is said to have ‘many faces,’ but it is also applicable to many of the suspects and even those investigating the crimes which take place. One consequence of this, is as a reader you are often reassessing characters you thought you already had pegged.
In one word this book could be described as brilliant, amazing, wonderful, involving –well maybe not in one word, but suffice to say Chameleon People is another great instalment of the series. Guilt is found in the most unsettling and surprising of places and the characters are multi-layered, with new sides to them being brought out as the narrative returns to them. This novel has more than a mystery to it, though this is engagingly complex and intricate, with a history of events leading to eruptions of violence in the present. I also enjoyed the interesting variation at the start of the novel where the greater mystery is the identifying of the primary suspect. I think my only small niggle with the book is to do with its’ deployment of criminal confession, but this is a rather subjective niggle and it didn’t affect my overall reading experience to any great extent. For me this is an addictive series to read and this is one of the few series where the writing style, the characters and their development, the plot and atmosphere, fit me as a reader so well. It is a rare series which emotionally involves you with the characters, leaving you bereft at the end because you have to wait another year or so until the next book is translated and released.
Warning: This series may give you a book hangover.