Book review: Medusa, by Torkil Damhaug

31 10 2016

Torkil Damhaug is a Norwegian physician and novelist, who has written eight books of both crime and general fiction. Several of his crime novels, known collectively as ‘The Oslo Crime Files’, have been translated into English; Medusa (Se Meg, Medusa, 2007, translated by Robert Ferguson) is Damhaug’s crime debut.

medusa

Axel Glenne is a well-regarded Oslo GP and family man whose affair with a med student, Miriam Gaizauskaite, kickstarts a sequence of grim and sadistic murders for which Axel himself soon becomes the prime suspect: the first woman killed is a colleague, the second a terminal cancer patient, and both victims have been drugged with an anaesthetic to which, unlike the general public, a doctor would have ready access. But there are other troubling and puzzling features of the homicides as well: the victims have been mauled, as though by a wild animal, and there are bear tracks in the earth near the parkland settings of the two murders.

Axel knows he’s not guilty—not of murder, at any rate—but who is? He suspects his missing twin brother, Brede, who as a child always seemed to take the wrong path while Axel chose more wisely; but DCI Hans Viken, in the driving seat of the investigation, has short shrift with the notion of a mysterious twin brother, not seen in public for over two decades, and much prefers Axel as the culprit, despite the lack of anything by way of motive. It’s left to Viken’s younger subordinates, detectives Nina Jebsen and Arve Norbakk, to attempt to uncover the truth behind the horrific attacks before any further deaths occur.

Damhaug writes with clarity and an effective presentation of emotional depth. I suspect that he cannot be faulted on the medical content (of which there’s quite a bit, both in the foreground and the background); his handling of the police investigation is also assured and detailed. Officers Viken and Jebsen are particularly well-drawn; I’m not sure if they reappear in subsequent volumes of the series, but I hope so. Glenne, too, is creditably three-dimensional, although I didn’t really warm to him as a protagonist (too many avoidable poor choices).

Medusa is a well-constructed novel, intricate and carefully-paced, with a good variety of credible characters, and the climax is genuinely gripping. I wasn’t, however, completely convinced by the rationale behind the deaths, nor by the killer’s fatalistic indifference to the idea of his capture. And I was briefly thrown out of the story by what I suspect may be an error in translation: on p. 167, reference is made to two small bottles, one of which is labelled as containing ‘ethane’ and is used by the suspect as an anaesthetic. This is almost certainly meant to be ‘ether’, as I would expect a physician-author to be well aware.

Overall, though I enjoyed the book, I felt it took a few too many twists and turns. It does, at least, show considerable promise, and this would appear to be borne out with the award of the 2011 Riverton Prize (Norway’s annual crime fiction award) for Damhaug’s third ‘Oslo Crime Files’ novel, Firestarter.

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