Book review: The Human Flies, by Hans Olav Lahlum

9 03 2017

Hans Olav Lahlum is a Norwegian historian, chess player, politician, and holder, as interviewee, of the world record for longest broadcast interview (at slightly in excess of thirty hours non-stop). He’s also a crime novelist, with a series of recent novels, set in Oslo during the 1960s and 70s, featuring the protagonist K2 (Criminal Investigator Kolbjørn Kristiansen).

TheHumanFlies

The Human Flies (Menneskefluene, 2010, translated by Kari Dickson) is the first in Lahlum’s K2 series, and opens with the discovery of the death, by gunshot, of retired politician and Norwegian resistance hero Harald Olesen, in his upstairs flat. Suspicion quickly falls on the building’s half-dozen other tenants, particularly the elderly Konrad Jensen, who during the war had been a Nazi sympathiser. But Kristiansen finds it difficult to believe that any of the building’s occupants, none of whom have watertight alibis, would genuinely be capable of murder; an assessment that lasts until he learns that each of them has been, for one reason or another, lying to him …

I have to say that it took me a while to warm to The Human Flies. The writing has a rather dated feel—which might, I suppose, be appropriate in a book set about a half-century ago, although my experience thus far of the work of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which was written about a half-century ago and set in the same era, suggests that it’s not at all necessary for crime fiction of such vintage to use stilted or stodgy prose. (I also take issue with one of the choices made in translation of the book, to express Oslo streetnames as, for example, ‘Erling Skjalgsson’s Street’ rather than ‘Erling Skjalgssons gate’ as it would appear on maps.) And engagement is not really helped by the personality of K2, who is quite bland and seems hardly to have a life other than as a policeman. But though the book is generally quite slow-moving, it does feature an intriguing mystery at its core, with an admirable (and generally plausible) number of twists to the investigation before the murderer is unveiled; and Kristiansen’s unofficial offsider, the paraplegic polymath and amateur sleuth Patricia Louise Borchmann, is an interesting character who, thankfully, also returns in the subsequent books in the series. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the Oslo of 1968 to ascertain whether it’s historically reliable, but it feels authentic and Lahlum’s academic credentials (evidenced in the book’s afterword, as well as elsewhere in the text) bolster confidence on this score.

I’m not sure of the merits of a cross-genre comparison—many crime readers wouldn’t be deeply familiar with SF, nor vice versa—but I detect a degree of similarity with the prose style of SF writer (and dabbler in crime fiction) Isaac Asimov, who tends not to be read for his characterisations (which were pretty ordinary) but rather for the intricacy and imagination of his conceptual extrapolations, and for his reliance on sometimes protracted but generally insightful exposition. If you’re comfortable with Asimov’s writing style, you’ll probably click with Lahlum’s. (As I said, I’m not sure how useful such a comparison is, but I feel it worth noting nonetheless.)

In summary, this is a well-plotted mystery with a solid and nuanced historical background, expressed in language that can sometimes seem distancing. It would be interesting to discern whether the subsequent books in the series are a bit more fleet-footed than this debut.