For 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.