#55: The Human Flies (2010) by Hans Olav Lahlum [trans. Kari Dickson 2014]

Human FliesFor those of you who lament the decline of the modern detective novel – and we are legion, to be sure – I have three words: Hans Olav Lahlum.  The Human Flies, his debut novel, is by no means perfect – it’s in need of a good edit, as there’s a tendency to repeat ad infinitum information gleaned and interpreted elsewhere – but it’s honestly about as close to a classically-motivated, -structured, and -executed novel as I imagine you’ll find in the 21st century.  The fact that it has almost the exact same setup as the likes of The Wooden Overcoat, The Black Shrouds and Our First Murder with a killing in a guest-house (here a small apartment block) of which one of the denizens is undoubtedly guilty certainly helps, but Lahlum is also smart enough to build on this base in very classical ways.  But for a few dates and key events – it is set in 1968 – this could almost have been written in the late 1940s.

To add to the fun, it also starts with an impossible murder: gunshots heard in an apartment, people rush to the scene before the killer would have chance to get away, and upon opening the locked door there’s a dead body but no killer, no weapon, and no other exit.  Cue detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen – that and his being blonde is pretty much all you’re told about him, so the nickname K2 may purely be a result of his initials rather than also his physical size – who swiftly finds himself out of his depth, as everyone in the building seems blameless, even given the victim’s relative celebrity and potential for enemies.  And then he gets a phone call…

Sometimes you encounter a character you wish was in their particular book more; I felt like this about Joe Pike in Robert Crais’ early Elvis Cole novels, and I still do about Colonel Race whenever he pops up in the Poirot canon.  Patricia Louise Isabelle Elizabeth Borchmann, for tis she the phone call brings Kristiansen into contact with, is such a character: the 18 year-old, wheelchair-bound genius daughter of an acquaintance of Kristiansen’s father, Patricia feels she may have some perspective to offer on the crime, and every moment she is not on the page following her introduction to proceedings feels wasted.  Lahlum doesn’t go out his way to make her a paradigm of virtue, and it works incredibly strongly in her favour: she is childish and churlish and rude at times, and astonishingly juvenile at others, but also capable of brilliant insights and deduction and the impact she had on both the investigation and the book cannot be overstated.

The patterns that begin to develop in no way feel like something that would happen in the real world, but as a piece of puzzle plotting they are fabulous (harking back to last week, it does almost feel like a Paul Halter novel at times in this regard).  I intend to give very little away, suffice to say that in less capable hands this would appear corny and over-reliant on coincidence, and the way Lahlum has worked out the intricacies of his plot is hugely, hugely impressive.  The accrual of the facts and various strands feels just about scattershot enough to warrant Patricia’s sharpened mind to link the relevant facts, and if her involvement in a murder investigation seems rather unlikely, or the occasional leap of what purports to be logic a little specious, you’ll hopefully be too caught up to really mind.

The impossible murder angle is resolved almost immediately Patricia appears on the scene, and uses key ideas from several famous examples (there’s one key one I could name that would give everything away almost at once, in fact).  Later developments echo (though never explicitly resolve) a device used by Edmund Crispin, and the characters themselves even talk about “doing a Poirot” in gathering all the suspects together for the final Big Clarification…but in no way does this borrowing reduce the prestige of the book itself.  Indeed, it feels more like a celebration of these classic tropes than an idea-drought or simply stealing stuff and hoping no-one will notice.  I can believe Lahlum is a huge fan of the classics, and he should be commended for what he has achieved here (and being Norwegian, no less, when the expectation is gloomy and glowering miserablism…how unfashionable of him!).

The downfall is the relentlessness of the considered pacing (something it shares with Ulf Durling’s Hard Cheese from a couple of weeks back) and the absence of a sharper editor.  The clues may be a bit thin and the perpetrator a little poorly-hidden, but for a first novel it gives me plenty of hope for what Lahlum will go on to produce (the will-reading scene herein is a particular triumph of comedy, drama and plot explored simultaneously).  And for the coup that is Patricia alone this more than warrants a look.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

Kate Jackson, crime blogger par excellence over at CrossExaminingCrime, put me onto Lahlum with her review of his third book, The Catalyst Killing – thanks Kate!  She has also interviewed him on her blog, and that can be found here.

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11 thoughts on “#55: The Human Flies (2010) by Hans Olav Lahlum [trans. Kari Dickson 2014]

  1. “…. but for a first novel it gives me plenty of hope for what Lahlum will go on to produce”
    Well, I think your hopes will be dashed. The second novel Satellite People has the same faults as the first one. I give it a rating of 3 like you have done for the first novel.


    • Good to know someone’s perspective, especially given the tastes I’m pretty sure we share, so thanks, Santosh. I shall feedback once I’ve read it!


  2. Enjoyed reading your post, but I thought considering the earlier enthusiasm you would have given it a higher rating. For me I didn’t find the pace slow (and I am a stickler when it comes to pacing), as I really enjoyed the narrative voice and the characterisation it allows to develop. But again perceptions of pacing are a subjective thing and whilst one reader like me gets totally immersed in the novel, others may not. Although Iyer thinks there are similar problems in the second novel as you outline I would disagree and in particular Patricia and K2’s relationship develops a lot and not stereotypically. I also think the puzzle crime element is stronger, as the direct referencing of GA stuff lessens and the plots stand up on their own feet (definitely the case in the third novel) but I guess I am probably biased. I’m intrigued you didn’t mention the background of Nazi occupation of Norway, as this is a key thing for the plot and the characters are still trying to move on from it, even 20 years later. Is this because you didn’t want to give spoilers or was it less relevant to you in the reading of the book?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was really enjoying the book it up until the revelation of the perpetrator gets underway and just….takes….ages. I feel like a huge amount is repeated massively needlessly, as I said, and there’s something particular with detective novels – because the point is that they’re been building to this all along, this unmasking – that really puts me off when the final stages are so, well, dull. It displays a lack of faith in your readers to have to restate everything and, if there’s not even some clever hidden connection they’re likely to have missed, it just reeks of padding to me. But, as you say, these things are subjective. I still have high hopes for Satellite People and will check it out within the next few months; love Patricia at the very least (and there’s plenty more here to enjoy), so not about to give up on her any time soon.

      And, yeah, the WW2 stuff I didn’t mention just because it’s nice to leave some stuff up to the discovery of the reader. I’ve got pretty good at going on for a long time without divulging too many specifics, I think – must be all that bluffing it at the front of classrooms!


      • Read a lot of books in between so I might be seeing THF through rose tinted glasses in regards to the build up to the ending. The main reason I mentioned the WW2 context was because I think it is an element which is well done and makes the book more than just a puzzle to solve and that is something I find important in a book to read. And I’m sure you astound and dazzle your maths students on a regular basis, though you should totally do a mathematically themed murder mystery. You being a maths teacher has somewhat puzzled me though when you said you were extremely introverted, though I imagine it is about feeling more or less comfortable in different social contexts.


  3. I am delighted to hear that there is a contemporary Norwegian mystery (crime?) writer unfashionable enough to eschew “gloomy and glowering miserablism”… Thanks for the review! 🙂

    Regarding “classically-motivated, -structured, and -executed novel[s]”, have you read either of Robert Thorogood’s ‘Death in Paradise’ novels?


    • I read the first one, A Meditation on Murder, and was decidedly underwhelmed (which, I’m aware, puts me in the minority). Puzzle Doctor has been exceptionally enthusiastic about the second, and I admire Thorogood’s classic intentions and roots enough to give it a go, but it won’t be jumping onto my TBR just yet…maybe when the price comes down a bit.

      Have you read either of them? Any thoughts?


  4. Hello! I’ve read ‘A Meditation on Murder’, and I found it to be an enjoyable novel. If I recall correctly, Puzzle Doctor was very glowing in his take on that novel, even if he were even more glowing in his take on the second novel. I think I liked ‘A Meditation on Murder’ quite alot, and found it to be one of the stronger modern-day offerings fashioned in the mould of the classic mystery novel.

    To pin my colours to the mast, I think I would have given it about 4 stars? Given our discussion on ‘Hard Cheese’, I seem to be consistently giving out higher ratings than you… But maybe not on the novel you are about to review next Wednesday. 😛

    *scurries off into hiding*


    • Well, I am notoriously hard to please; that’s part of the appeal of a blog, I get to explain myself and then discuss it afterwards!

      And there are two interpretations of your TPotGC comment: the first is that you didn’t like it and are anticipating my loving it, the second is that it’s universally going to receive the highest rating possible from everyone… Either way, let’s talk next week!


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