Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
My first encounter with Kjell Ola Dahl was last year when I read one of his standalone historical crime novels set in mid-1920s Norway moving up to WWII, and I very much enjoyed The Assistant. Kjell Ola Dahl is one of Norway’s foremost crime writers, especially known for his ‘Oslo Detectives’ and ‘Frank Frølich’ series, four of each are available in English, all translated by Don Bartlett.
Things are slightly complicated by DI Frank Frølich being one of the Oslo Detectives, getting star billing in some of the books; in the others he is usually working with the older DI Gunnarstranda. They’ve not been translated or published in order of their original publication in Norwegian, and after reading the latest – in the Oslo Detectives series, I don’t think it particularly matters – Little Drummer stood on its own – and I’d love to read some of the others now, both series.
Journalist Lisa Fagernes is in a hurry to get to an appointment, but doesn’t like parking in deserted underground car parks. She finds another car to park next to and knocks the wing-mirror getting out. Looking in at the woman in the car, she can see she’s dead!
It appears that the deceased woman was a suicide or overdose – a syringe hung from her hand, and junkie paraphernalia is on the car floor. DI Gunnarstranda feels that her death may be suspicious and orders an autopsy, the cost of which will really irritate his boss. Then he sets about identifying the young woman, who turns out to be a student in her twenties who’d borrowed her flatmate’s car, worked in a bar, and didn’t do drugs.
Body identified, Gunnarstranda turns his attention to a missing person report – a young foreigner was reported missing three days ago. Stuart Takeyo, was a scientist from Kenya, working on his doctorate in Norway on an aid project. Two people had reported him missing, a colleague and a woman who’d known him for years. Frølich asks Gunnarstranda why he’s interested.
He nodded in the direction of the waitress. ‘She and I talked on Monday. She shared a flat with the girl who OD’ed in the car park on Ibsenringen.’ He produced a phone from his pocket and laid it on the table. ‘This phone belongs to the dead woman, Kristine Ramm. She used it to call Takeyo’s home number five times on the day she died. The same day he disappeared.’
Things have just got a lot more complicated! The detectives set about retracing Kristine and Takeyo’s last movements, which leads to a businessman’s yacht, and a realisation that Takeyo has bolted back to Kenya, borrowing a friend’s passport. Perhaps the only way they’ll solve things is for one of them to go to Kenya and find Takeyo. Frølich finds himself on the plane – but he’s not on his own. Lisa Fagernes has been on the case and is going to Kenya too, but she’s not ready to work with Frølich yet.
Back in Oslo, Gunnarstranda is at the doctors for his chronic coughing fits. He receives a new diagnosis, not chronic bronchitis like last time; it’s now pulmonary emphysema.
‘Let me make myself clear. If you don’t try to give up smoking, I don’t want you as a patient.’
She met his gaze head on.
‘I mean it,’ she affirmed.
Gunnarstranda stood up and put on his blue shirt.
‘Are you out of breath after the slightest exertion? Do you have breathing difficulties and the senation that you can’t get enough air? Is that happening more and more often? Phlegm? Coughing fits?’
Gunnarstranda buttoned up his shirt, got to his feet and tucked it into his trousers.
‘This is about your life – in the best-case scenario, the quality of your life.’
Dahl’s portrayal of Gunnarstranda as this grumpy old bear is very human. Age and smoking roll-ups may be catching up with him, but his mind is lively and still curious. His method of investigation is mostly by thought and intuition, leaving the legwork to younger colleagues. I liked him a lot.
Frølich meanwhile, is younger, more cocky and sure of himself, but he has met his match in Lisa, who is a determined woman! You can tell they will end up together – more quickly due to the events she precipitates, as they discover terrible corruption, lies and fraud relating to foreign aid and essential medication in Kenya. I can imagine that the Frølich books as opposed to the Oslo detective ones have more action, that said I really enjoyed the pairing of Frølich and Gunnarstranda.
With its secondary location in Africa, this novel did bring Henning Mankell’s third Wallander book to mind, The White Lioness. I didn’t enjoy that particular Wallander so much, but that wasn’t the case with Little Drummer, the African strand integrated well with the Norwegian as Frølich and Gunnarstranda stayed in touch throughout, and as you might guess once rich businessmen get involved in cases, it usually boils down to following the money.
With two well-drawn and likeable main characters, a suitably complicated plot, solved with a combination of brainpower and sometimes dangerous legwork, the Oslo Detectives get a thumbs up from me. I’m very keen to follow up by reading more by Kjell Ola Dahl.
Source: Review copy – thank you to Orenda Books. Paperback original, 276 pages.
BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.