The Human Flies

humanflies200Written by Hans Olav Lahlum — When you pick up this Norwegian crime novel, don’t expect something out of the Nordic noir tradition. Instead prepare yourself for a classic whodunit of the highest calibre, a deviously challenging murder mystery set in an apartment complex in 1960s Oslo.

Kolbjørn Kristiansen, a rookie detective, sets out to make his mark with his first assigned case, and it’s a doozy. When neighbours living on a quiet street in Oslo hear a gunshot, they immediately rush upstairs to the source, the apartment of former minister and wartime resistance hero Harald Olesen. They discover, after gaining entry, that he’s been shot to death.

The immediate and most glaring mystery for our young detective is that there is no sign of forced entry, and no exit but the apartment’s single door, which was blocked by responding neighbours. Not only did the phantom perpetrator escape without being seen, but the apartment’s intact window rules out the possibility of an escape route on one hand or a sniper scenario on the other. This miraculous getaway forms part of a classic whodunit set-up. As the detective starts interviewing the apartment complex’s seven residents, all of them become viable suspects for one reason or another. As their individual stories are slowly revealed, deep links are discovered going back to a wartime drama of Nazi persecution and life and death choices made by ordinary people.

Early in the investigation, Kristiansen is aided in his endeavour by an unusual sidekick. Patricia Louise Borchmann is an 18-year-old wheelchair-bound genius. He is introduced by her father, who is Kristiansen’s former professor, and who begs to arrange a meeting between the two. She is an Agatha Christie enthusiast whose remarkably sharp mind has some definite ideas about the case, working only from details she’s gleaned in the papers. As Kristiansen interviews the residents and checks their backgrounds, he reluctantly reports back to Patricia. He soon realises that she is two steps ahead of him. Working from the confines of her mansion, she soon proves a valuable asset to the detective, sharing her intriguing theory that the murderer represents a species of what she calls ‘human flies’.

There’s a break in the case when victim Harald Olesen’s diary turns up. In it, Kristiansen reads about the final days before his death wherein he refers to various people using mysterious abbreviations, including the menacing character ‘D’. As the detective learns more about the residents of the building, he realises none of them is on the level. He shuttles back and forth between repeated interviews and Patricia’s dining room, as she helps the detective puzzle out the identities of the characters in the diaries, one of whom is likely the murderer.

Lahlum’s narrative works on many levels, veering in and out of the present investigation and a remote past, while revealing the murder victim’s diary entry by entry. As a story told in first person, related years later, describing the story of his investigation aided by Patricia and her Agatha Christie-esque scenarios, Lahlum’s story is a meta-detective story that is a joy to read.

As one of the suspects in the apartments becomes the second murder victim there is more pressure to solve the case. Patricia soon proves her mettle and Kristianson becomes dependent on her keen insights and dead-on predictions. She even comes to his aid in an entertaining final segment when he rounds up all the suspects in person for the resolving showdown of the mystery.

This novel is moderately hefty, as it works out the possibilities of each of the seven suspects, including the caretaker’s wife, a seductive young student, a mysterious American, another war hero, a former Nazi, a not-so happily married couple, and more colourfully rendered characters. Rich and complex as the story is, Lahlum’s choice of first person limits the narrative to the detective’s point of view. This lends suspense to the unfolding mystery but also leaves one bereft of insight into key figures like Patricia, who is arguably a stronger character than Kristiansen himself.

I would welcome a follow-up to this entertaining mystery, especially if it involves this offbeat but charming duo of sleuths.

The Human Flies start buzzing in print and for Kindle on 5 June.

Mantle
Print/Kindle
£7.12

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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