It’s rare to read a book that could have been published any time in the last forty years. Even historical crime usually reflects the norms of society at the time of writing. Compare, for example, Ellis Peter’s Cadfael books with the more recent Matthew Shardlake novels by CJ Sansom. Peters’ straightforward narratives would be too simplistic for a modern readership who now demands much more from its crime novels. However, The Human Flies is unusual in that it is a contemporary novel by a very modern looking writer, if his photograph is anything to go by. However Lahlum has effectively captured the feel of a 1960s locked room mystery without the book ever feeling like a pastiche of the genre.
In 1968, a young detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen, is given his first high profile murder case. Harald Olesen, a hero of the Resistance turned popular politician, is found murdered in his Oslo apartment. From the state of the room and the speed with which the murderer escaped, it is clear that the killer must be a fellow tenant in the apartment block. Kristiansen is given the near impossible task of finding the culprit until Patricia, the daughter of a family friend, who is wheelchair bound and refuses to leave her house, offers to help him by studying the clues from afar.
A locked room mystery usually only holds limited appeal for me but Lahlum does an excellent job of keeping your attention. This is achieved by teasing the reader with the suspicion that no character is who they seem. This is most effectively done with a young married couple but deception lurks around every corner. Kristiansen as a protagonist is interesting enough but the most successful character in the book is the wheelchair bound, Patricia. In some ways she is based on what we have seen before, a sort of female Ironside. But she is nevertheless a compelling figure.
The writing is crisp and gives a flavour of the late 1960s that is sometimes reminiscent of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck books. I found The Human Files to be different from the usual Scandinavian fare and it was good to read something a little bit different. I see that the author is attending Iceland Noir this year. It will be good to hear him talk about his book.
Thanks to Macmillan for my review copy. The translation was by Kari Dickson.