Ingen Flyr På Ham

Hans Olav Lahlum, Menneskefluene (Human Flies (2010))

Norway was neutral during the Second World War, but was invaded by Germany on 9 April 1940 and occupied by the Wehrmach until 8 May 1945. About a third of the Jewish population was deported to the camps in German, whilst others fled into exile. Some Norwegians signed up to fight for the Nazis — mostly on the Eastern front — but there was also a resistance movement. This left a bitter legacy for Norway, some of which formed back stories for the Harry Hole novels of Jo Nesbø, all of which I have now read.

So, whilst there are non-series novels to be read, I found a copy of Lahlum’s Human Flies, a locked-room mystery set in 1968. Harald Olesen, a hero of the resistance, is found shot dead in his flat in an apartment building, but no one has seen anybody leave his front door. It is up to Detective Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen to investigate and the building is full of secrets — a former Nazi, an American ambassadorial official, people orphaned by the war, those having affairs… K2 (as the detective is known) is aided in this investigation by Patricia, a beautiful and intelligent woman confined to a wheelchair.

Lahlum is a historian by training and it turns out a relative (a great great aunt?) was Dagmar Lahlum, an Oslo member of the Norwegian resistance recruited by Eddie Chapman to work for MI5 — his exploits were recounted in several biographies, including Nicholas Booth’s Zigzag – The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman (2007) and Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy (2007). This clearly had an impact on the novel — of the relationship forged in the war and lost in peace time.

And yet I don’t think I can recommend this. I’ve not read enough Agatha Christie to make the comparison — but there’s a series of one-to-one interviews, a couple of points where the suspects are gathered together (“I suppose you are wondering why I gathered you all here together…”)… It, frankly, drags. The first person narration doesn’t help and the nods to historic events seem perfunctory. Perhaps in 1968 a policeman could work alone and share information with a civilian without trouble, but it’s a novel that feels set in the 1930s rather than the 1960s.

The Singer Not the Gun

Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (2010)

Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Some critics have complained it is, if not a cosy catastrophe, then a clean apocalypse. I pass no comment as to whether this is a good thing or not — but clearly it was a novel about the survival of culture and what stories need to be told or should not be told.

Perhaps cleanness is Talfamadorian.

Don’t look at the nasty moments.

Perhaps by virtue of the book’s already burgeoning reputation — Waterstone’s were promoting it — at least one of her earlier novels is in print in the UK. It is difficult to read The Singer’s Gun without the later novel in mind.

So Anton Walker works in an office in the new World Trade Center complex and is hoping to marry his girlfriend Sophie on the third attempt. One day he discovers he has been demoted — there’s some question about his nationality or his qualifications — and he’s exiled to an office on the mezzanine, where his former secretary, Elena, also demoted, begins a secret affair with him. Walker’s parents sell stolen goods from their shop and Walker had been in business with his cousin, Aria, selling false passports to immigrants such as Elena. Anton had been bribed to do one last thing for Aria, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. He is waiting, wifeless, on the island of Ischia of Naples, and people have been on his trail.

Station Eleven moved between the start of the disaster and the aftermath, twenty years later, and here again there is an achronological structure, as if Mandel is scripting a puzzle movie. Anton knows more about Elena than Elena realises, we know more about Elena than Anton does and we know about the agent. We move backwards and forwards in time. We are trained to ferret out the connections — although that makes us wonder why Walker is so trusting.

On one level, this is noir territory. The introspective, flawed protagonist who has sinned and must be punished out of all proportion, the untrustworthy women (the agent, the cousin, the girlfriend/wife, the mistress, all save his almost silent mother), the waiting for someone to come in through the door with a gun in their hand. He will be screwed (over). There are two MacGuffins — a package and a cat. You’ve got to love the cat.

And yet — there’s that cleanness. You are driven forward to read, you can see the ironies and the trap closing… But this is, what, a comedy? Walker seems curious carefree, even as he puts an acquaintance into the frame. There’s that gun, the singer’s gun, that has to be used because it is over the metaphorical fireplace of the title. The singer herself is only briefly there. Aria is a song. Elena sings, so to speak, in a slang way. But someone has to be shot — and it’s clean. It’s not the dirtiness of the noir — it feels curiously inconsequential, although the moral/immorality of the noir is selective in its punishment of characters. Or rather, there are worse places to be than in jail.

And, then, at the heart of the novel, the real trade, the real reason they are on Walker’s trail — ah, spoilers. That centre does not bear thinking of. That centre is sometimes glimpsed on the news and contains images which the viewer may find distressing, on one shore or another of the Mediterranean. We see it head on once, I believe, in a brief chapter. But it’s not dirty enough — or there’s a horror in the cleanness. As I say, you are driven forward to read on, but the punch is pulled.