Sunday, 10 July 2016

Greydoll's Criminal Reading: "The Catalyst Killing" by Hans Olav Lahlum

Back in 1970, I was a student. It was a time of revolution, rebellion and sitting-in. This didn't happen much in my own college... which was a great source of disappointment to some of our tutors who, I think, fancied themselves as being at the heart of change. But then teaching (yeah, right) at an art college in a West Country town more conformist than my own native suburbia was perhaps not the anarchist hub they might have tried for if their hearts were in it. (OK - I didn't enjoy my stay there.) I do remember that some student union meetings where quite vocal... but these never really resulted in any kind of decision because the various student factions were challenging Each Other more than The Authorities.... usually about agenda structure and points of order.

So it is that my ancient bones remember the political flavour of the late 1960s and early 1970s setting for "The Catalyst Killing" by Hans Olav Lahlum. (Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Paperback, Pan Macmillan, 2016) and another find from my local bookshop.

The story begins one evening when Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen is mesmerised by the expression of fear on the face of a young woman desperately running to catch his train. The doors close on her. And later her murdered body is found on the train tracks. It is Kristiansen (known as K2) who must find her killer and who soon discovers that her boyfriend, the charismatic leader of a small, radically left-wing, political group, had disappeared two years before. Political rivalry? Or was his death linked to his research into possible current links between a group of Norwegian Nazis from the war years. And was his girlfriend's death connected to his disappearance?

Set in Norway in 1970 this murder mystery conjures the era of Mao's Little Red Book and its effect upon world politics and the fashionably radical young. Starting from the base of the student political group, K2 is presented with a tight list of possible witness interviews. We follow the progress of his interviews and crime-scene visits, punctuated by his lunches and suppers with his gifted and mysteriously accurate detection-muse, the young Patricia. Meanwhile the crimes themselves escalate.

I will own up that I am not a particular fan of Agatha Christie-style whodunits. So, when I realised how much I was in classic "whodunit land" with this book - the third in Lahlum's series featuring K2 and his young helper - I didn't think I would enjoy it. But I did.
It reads smoothly and coolly in this English translation by Kari Dickson. Instead of a boring traipse through clues, I found a calm narrative pace which surprised me with a great buildup of suspense as it ran to its conclusion. And Lahlum's writing gives us individualised characters, irony, humanity... and a slightly surreal world conjured by a combination of investigation, coincidence and the truly prodigious gifts of Patricia.

If you are a little tired of the relentless grit of much Nordic Noir .... and if the notion of 1960s Nordic retro-whodunits whets your appetite ... try this series of books by Hans Olav Lahlum.

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