The Anthill Murders (2017) by Hans Olav Lahlum

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?

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4.25/5

K2 Series in full:

The Human Flies (2014)

Satellite People (2015)

The Catalyst Killing (2015)

Chameleon People (2016)

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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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9 Responses to The Anthill Murders (2017) by Hans Olav Lahlum

  1. Noah Stewart says:

    The rise of the serial killer novel is a topic that offers a lot of speculation and certainly is more complicated than I can sum up in a sentence. But I’ll suggest that serial killer novels offer a style of problem that can be easily grasped by the reader: either “Why are all the victims clutching a blue daisy?” or whatever, or “What is motivating someone to kill a series of, say, redheaded doctors?” (Occasionally it’s “What IS the central thing that links all these victims in a way we can’t see?) The problem can be easily expressed and it’s a simple plot structure: situation, investigation, solution. And when the killer is identified, s/he explains somehow that they had been frightened by a redheaded doctor as a child, or whatever, and the reader feels that they have a “solution” (although it’s usually just an “answer”).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah to have your brain … you make an excellent point. Serial killings are focused on connections and of course writers can play around with that presumption.

      Like

      • JJ says:

        I think Noah’s point about the plot structure is an excellent one, too — and typified by how, even in non-serial killer novels from the GAD, we suddently get a raft of late-on murders that do nothing except provide some excitement and intrigue because Someone Saw Something. Think of the number of dull books you’ve read that string a single thin crime out to 250+ pages and how horribly interminable these are. Whereas having a new crime scene every 50 pages gives you a clear jelly mould to replicate, with a few variations, and so becomes much easier to plot.

        And, yeah, the notion of an answer rather than a solution is a fine and important distinction. In this way, it could be said that the serial killer novel is in fact more responsible for the creation of the modern crime novel than is any other facet of detective writing. The fact that clues and deductions are difficult to keep up must surely be considered a large part in the decline of the GAD, and the string of killings loosely connected by a narrow thread is an easy way around this…

        Sorry to learn TAM isn’t an impossible crime, too. The Human Flies was an interesting book, and Satellite People much less so, and I’d like to think I’ll return to Lahlum at some point because he’s first and foremost a classicist. But there’s just so much else to read. Life is terrible 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes I got foxed by the dustjacket quotes. I thought they were for just that book, rather than a series as a whole. Sorry for getting your hopes up there. And yes you and Noah are far more articulate when it comes to exploring the perceived benefits of a serial killer plot. Glad you’re doing my work for me!

        Like

    • rkottery says:

      In addition to Noah, JJ and your own excellent points about serial killer plot lines, I wonder if there is an attempt to both make things more personal – the clues that such killers leave being an outright challenge to the police to ‘come get me, pigs, if you’re smart enough’ – and to try to make the apprehension of the killer more consequential, as it’s a case of, not ‘merely’ bringing justice but saving lives.
      Personally, I’m not usually keen, partly because these sort of cases usually lead to the usual investigative powers of the detective failing, so that they can only solve the case when they have a sufficient number of dead bodies, the last of which has some glowing neon sign of a clue.

      Liked by 2 people

      • JJ says:

        Or, even worse, it’s been horribly obvious since about Body Three, but four more needed to be offed to provide cheap titillation and fill the necessary page count…I, uh, mean make it even more personal…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. JFW says:

    The only reason one can slightly turn the nose at the 4.25/5 rating for ‘Anthill Murders’ is that all the other entries you’ve reviewed were given the perfect score of 5/5! I’m presuming ‘Satellite People’ would be no exception? I’ve read the first two novels for the series, and I’ll be getting onto the the third one next.

    Which of the five novels would you say is the best?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh heck! You like to ask difficult questions! I think Books 3 and 4 have the strongest emotional impact on the reader. Books 1 and 2 have the more classic mystery structure, but the cases deployed in books 3 and 4 are still strong without that formula/setting, if that makes sense.

      Like

  3. Noah Stewart says:

    It occurs to me that there’s another reason that people like serial killer stories. It’s something to do with the reader’s frisson of fear when they realize that, omigod, if the killer is selecting people at random it could be … me. Unlike GAD, frequently the serial killer chooses people who don’t “deserve” to die.

    Liked by 1 person

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