The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum
Translated by Kari Dickson
This is the first novel in Lahlum’s ‘K2 and Patricia’ series of Norwegian detective novels which now number four. Set in the late 1960s into the early 1970s, they are unencumbered by modern technology bar the forensics of the time, allowing the convolutions of the plots and good old-fashioned police work and deduction to shine.
It’s 1968 and Kolbjørn Kristiansen (hence K2) is an ambitious young detective inspector. Sent to the scene of the murder of an elderly hero of the Resistance in an Oslo apartment block, he soon realises that he has an interesting case to solve for Harald Oleson’s body is in a locked room with no signs of forced entry. It was on the top floor of the six apartment building and as the sound of the shot rang out, some of the neighbours were talking in the stairway and could see the lift and the caretaker’s wife had not noted any visitors either.
K2 takes preliminary statements from all the building’s inhabitants: a taxi driver with a dodgy past; an American diplomat from the embassy; a couple with a baby son; a beautiful young Swedish student; and a wheelchair bound man. It transpires that Oleson, who had lost his wife a few years previously, had no relatives other than a niece and nephew. He was dying of cancer anyway, although this wasn’t widely known. The caretaker was in hospital, but his wife who looked after the two adjacent apartment blocks and managed their telephones was able to give Kolbjørn a lot of information about the residents to start his investigation.
K2’s first lead is that Kristian Lund was reported to have returned to the building by the caretaker’s wife at 8, but his wife is sure he returned at 9. Where did he spend the missing hour? With one of the other residents perchance? Apart from that, he’s slightly at a loss on how to get going, but his fortunes will soon change when he makes the reacquaintance of the daughter of an old family friend, from one of the richest families in Oslo. Ragnar Borchmann, invites K2 to visit his daughter to discuss the case, for she has some ideas. Patricia is largely housebound, paralysed from the waist down in the car accident which killed her mother. Patricia has a superb intellect, honed by her studies but also her love of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. She asks to help the detective, and expounds her initial thoughts that they are looking for ‘a human fly’. She explains to Kolbjørn,
‘I am sorry–I wasn’t thinking. It is a concept that I made up myself and have used so much since that I forget that it is not something that other people understand. But I do think that it may be relevant here. There are a good many people who at some point in their lives have experienced something so painful and traumatic that they never get over it. They become human flies and spend more or less the rest of their life circling round what happened. Like flies round a rubbish tip, to use a simple analogy. I think that Harald Olesen himself, behind his suit and mask, was in fact a human fly. And I have a strong suspicion that he was killed by another one.’
With Patricia’s help, K2 is able to quickly ascertain that the murder didn’t happen when everyone heard the shot (I won’t let on how this was done!) and the pair become a team after this initial success. They also start to dig into the past of all the other residents to see if there is anything that links them to Olesen’s role in the Resistance back in WWII. As you might guess, everyone in the building has something to hide, and winkling out most of the lies and obfuscations before Olesen’s will is read will keep Patricia’s mind working at full pelt, and give K2 all the legwork and interviewing to do. K2 will report back regularly. The reveals will come thick and fast, with plenty of red herrings taking us one way and then the other until K2 can make his arrest.
Lahlum’s novel is narrated a la Philip Marlow et al by the detective K2 himself. He certainly is keen and observant, full of confidence usually, but he isn’t infallible so its a good thing that he has Patricia’s superior profiling powers to help. Lahlum is a historian, and this was his first novel. He used the diaries of his aunt who had had a romance with the chap from Operation Zigzag during the war as the seed of his inspiration for the book. At 366 pages plus afterwords, this is a fairly wordy novel, and a handful of pages could have been saved by taking out many of the ‘that’s in the writing (although this could be in the translator’s style), but that is a small quibble. I enjoyed the way Lahlum paid homage to the greats of the Golden Age in his truly convoluted plot, and the will reading scene was rather wonderful.
Our two investigators, Kolbjørn and Patricia are, however, superb characters, Kolbjørn, although having a tendency to be very matter of fact and full of detail, all the more so for not taking himself too seriously all of the time. I laughed out loud when he interviewed the attractive young Swede, Sara, who explained she was drawn to tall blondes: he wonders if she had noticed that he too was tall and blonde.
I have the second novel in this series, Satellite People, in my pile. Although I won’t have time to read it this week, read it I will for I really enjoyed this first outing for K2 and Patricia. (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Pan paperback, 373 pages. BUY at Amazon UK via my affiliate link.