THE HUMAN FLIES by HANS OLAV LAHLUM
This is the first novel in a series by Lahlum a young (43) Norwegian writer, with several biographies already to his name. Lahlum is a National Chess master (rating 2204) in the country that boasts world champion Magnus Carlsen. Published in English in 2014, it was the recent choice of my local Murder and Mystery book club.
In some ways this quirky novel is structured like a chess puzzle. Not just “White to play and mate in three,” but rather the totally artificial construct of most chess puzzles, which postulate positions rarely if ever arising on the chessboard.
The setting is Oslo in 1968 when a hero of the Norwegian Resistance during World War Two is found murdered in an apartment building. All the residents of the building are suspects. The narrator, Detective Inspector Kristiansen, is lost for inspiration and is prevailed upon to seek assistance from an intellectually brilliant wheelchair bound woman, daughter of an influential wealthy family friend. He provides her with details of the case and she points him in the directions to go. There follows a painstaking sequence of interviews, repeated as necessary, with the building residents and other people the investigation turns up, to narrow down the search for the killer, including a gathering together of the suspects for the reading of the murdered man’s will.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This is classic Agatha Christie, with a good dose of Conan Doyle thrown in for good measure. And intentionally so, with both quoted several times in the novel. They’re all there: the thick policeman, the brilliant and wealthy amateur sleuth (who’s also quite a nasty snob), the near country house setting with all the suspects conveniently located together, the dash of romance and skeletons abounding in the various cupboards of the suspects. Even the title itself reflects some of this; human flies are people whose life is forever altered by one event – or non-event – and who are forever defining themselves with reference to that event, like flies forever circling over a carcase.
Given the subject matter we get some insights and information on the occupation of Norway during the Second World War, in particular concerning the hiding of fugitives from the Nazis and smuggling them across the border with Sweden. The Second World War continues to haunt certain memories in Scandinavia and the Baltics and is a constant in fiction across the region, hardly surprising in the light of collaboration, armed resistance, cooperation, and the participation of volunteers from all countries fighting with the Nazis on the Eastern Front. All outside the scope of this novel except in so far as one of the suspects had a Nazi past while the victim was a Resistance hero.
Does the construct work? Yes if you can suspend belief and transport yourself back to the genteel circumstances and lifestyle of the middle classes of Agatha Christie’s heyday and if you believe that murders can be solved by the application of brainpower alone. This plus the total omission of any reference to normal police work or involvement of other policemen, no mention of forensics, scene of crime preservation, or how and by whom other lines of enquiry are carried out. Plus the involvement in and the transmission of case details to an untrained member of the public.
No, otherwise. As noted earlier it’s like a chess problem but with at best a tenuous relationship with the real world. Aficionados of Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt and others will not be impressed.