Source: Review Copy (Mantle)
This is the fifth book in Lahlum’s Kolbjorn Kristiansen (K2) and Patricia Borchmann series. I initially got a bit perplexed by this read, as based on a quote about the series on the dustjacket I assumed it was a locked room mystery like the first in the series, The Human Flies (2010). However, in keeping with the general trend of the series, the mystery in this book is in fact a series of murders, committed in the public sphere. Serial killings is a narrative choice which I think is becoming increasingly popular in mystery fiction, making me wonder what makes a series of killings more gripping than a single murder? Is one body not enough? An obvious answer as to why this is the case, I think lies in the fact that an increasing body count radically increases the pressure on the characters whose job it is to solve the case. In particular this book finds Patricia, who in past novels easily helps K2 solve his cases, at a loss because rather than K2’s investigative work enabling Patricia to develop new leads, this time round such leads become mostly and repeatedly dead ends more or less. An added moment of tension with the book is the rapidly changing nature of K2 and Patricia’s relationship, which I’ll talk about a bit later.
But now for murder…
The novel opens with the killer’s thoughts, which are an eerie and unsettling mix of invulnerability and exclusion from the world. We watch their thoughts as they wait for their victim, the narrative only switching to K2 at the moment of death. The first body is that of Agnes Halvorsen, a minister’s daughter. In time honoured fashion K2 begins to conduct an ordinary murder case, despite the odd inclusion of an ant picture in Agnes’ handbag. Yet for all his investigative work little seems to have been uncovered and on top of that another murder closely follows. Throughout the series of killings it becomes increasingly evident that despite the killer having insider knowledge, they are not close to their victims. As with the other cases Patricia has helped K2 to on she comes up with a phrase to encapsulate the crime, ‘the Anthill Murders,’ saying that ‘the murderer is an ant and it is impossible to differentiate him from the masses […]’. You can see why this case soon becomes a policeman’s nightmare. But will K2 be able to get out of it though?
I’ve tried to not say too much about the plot, as the murders are fairly intricate in themselves and overlap and interlace in a myriad of ways. To do them justice you would need to detail the entire story, which of course would somewhat defeat the point of the review.
I always find it interesting when a writer includes excerpts from the writers’ thoughts. Initially as a reader you begin to feel in a more privileged position than the fictional sleuths who lack this additional information, which reveals a bit more about the killer and their personality each time. Yet the more conversant I have become with mystery fiction and its tricks, the more suspicious I have become of these moments with the murderer, having realised the number of ways a writer can fox you by using these sections to create expectations or assumptions within the reader about the identity of the criminal.
Throughout reading this series one thing which has particularly struck me about it is the way K2 perceives and interacts with women. From the very first book female physical attributes play a big part in how he makes his value judgements on women. It occurs with witnesses, suspects and even Patricia. Initially I felt that K2’s interactions with Patricia were complicating or changing this and one key change in their relationship in this book is that they have begun to meet socially, indicating that K2 is seeing her less as a crime solving resource and more as a human being. Yet for all this I think K2 has a long way to go in becoming a less patriarchal character. Male dominance over women is still something which surfaces in K2’s interactions with women, especially Patricia, who conversely is someone, let’s be honest intimates him, even if he doesn’t like to admit it and due to his intimidation he is all the more keen to reassert himself, whilst trying to get handle on his new feelings for her. I could waffle on about this more and no doubt drop a few spoilers along the way, but I think I’ll end this meandering with the fact that I find K2 an increasingly ambiguous character. Not someone I whole heartedly like, nor someone I completely hate. On side note Patricia’s own character has a significant shuffle round as well, as K2 debates and ponders whether he could have a full relationship with a woman whose legs are paralysed. I think being allowed into Patricia’s thoughts at this point would have helped to balance things out and made the narrative voice less male dominated. Though something I have pondered myself is how the historical/social context affects this issue. Does K2 have to be the way he is in order to fit in with the time period he is operating it? Am I just making a mountain out of a mole hill? In my somewhat sleepy state both options feel quite viable…
In quite a number of ways this is an ambitious book, which sets out to achieve a lot with its two protagonists, as well as provide a highly complex, seemingly motiveless serial killing, which does have an ingenious surprise, with what you could almost call a backwards clue. In the main I would say it reaches these targets and it was quite novel to watch an investigation bump into dead end after dead end, challenging reader presumptions in a way. The pacing though could have been a bit quicker, (as this book is the longest in the translated series so far), and with this type of plot the trickiest point was going to the moment when the information/evidence drops into place and the killer can be revealed and to be honest I don’t think this moment was created in a sufficiently satisfying way. Patricia’s lightbulb moment did not fully convince me, though it seems we were thinking along the same lines. Again this might be due to the historical/social/cultural context of the series, but one niggle I had was with the borderline stereotypical depiction of faith and religion, finding that the main characters were often treating it as an irrational affliction you had to tolerate in others, which did come across as a bit patronising. This issue may well not affect other people of course.
However, as I have said, in the main, this story is another entertaining entry in the series, which is creative in varying ways, making full such of its historical setting and as always keeps you guessing and wondering whether you have figured out the crimes correctly or not.
K2 Series in full:
The Human Flies (2014)
Satellite People (2015)
The Catalyst Killing (2015)
Chameleon People (2016)