A(nother) Year of Orenda – The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl trns by Don Bartlett

Today it is my absolute pleasure to share my thoughts on The Assistant, the brand new novel from Norwegian author, Kjell Ola Dahl. I love the author’s historical crime fiction and this pre-WWII set thriller is absolutely cracking. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the tour and publisher Orenda Books for the gifted advance copy of the book. Here’s what it’s all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date: ebook – 13th March 21
Paperback: 13th May 2021
Publisher: Orenda Books

About the Author

A seemingly straightforward investigation into marital infidelity leads a PI and his ex-con assistant on a murderous trail, in a sophisticated, riveting, cunningly plotted historical Nordic Noir thriller set in interwar and prohibition-era Norway.

Oslo, 1938. War is in the air and Europe is in turmoil. Hitler’s Germany has occupied Austria and is threatening Czechoslovakia; there’s a civil war in Spain and Mussolini reigns in Italy.

When a woman turns up at the office of police-turned-private investigator Ludvig Paaske, he and his assistant – his one-time nemesis and former drug-smuggler Jack Rivers – begin a seemingly straightforward investigation into marital infidelity.

But all is not what it seems, and when Jack is accused of murder, the trail leads back to the 1920s, to prohibition-era Norway, to the smugglers, sex workers and hoodlums of his criminal past … and an extraordinary secret.

Both a fascinating portrait of Oslo’s interwar years, with Nazis operating secretly on Norwegian soil and militant socialists readying workers for war, The Assistant is also a stunningly sophisticated, tension-packed thriller – the darkest of hard-boiled Nordic Noir – from one of Norway’s most acclaimed crime writers.

My Thoughts

Oh I do love this book. Kjell Ola Dahl is a master at bringing history to life and with The Assistant takes us into the world of prohibition era Norway and the lives of smuggler Jack Rivers and the man whose mission it is to catch him, Ludvig Paaske. But that is only one part of the story for this tale is split over two distinct moments in time – the early 1920s in which Jack’s career is based upon getting contraband to those who will pay handsomely for it, and the late 1930’s just before the onset of World War Two, when Nazi Germany is starting to make its presence felt around the world and Norway stands at the cusp of significant change. Jack and Paaske aren’t the only two characters who accompany us throughout the years, but they are the principal players in a mystery that is many years in the making and their unlikely partnership as Private Investigators, the catalyst for a most shocking but very satisfying finale.

I loved the character of Jack Rivers. From the very outset there is just something about him, his relaxed persona, that knowledge that he is skirting around the wrong side of the law, that makes him an irresistible character to spend time with. He is a romantic at heart, often blinded by love and beauty, but who pays the ultimate price for his trust and his career choices. There is a real sense of adventure and risk about him, but it is clear he has good instincts, for the most part, and an personality akin to an Indiana Jones type that will, for the most part, keep him out of trouble. He’s not infallible, and whilst what befalls him is in part justice, it still made me a little angry on his behalf. You want to see him get away. You want to see him succeed in spite of the forces against him.

Paaske on the other hand I was never sure about. He was just doing his job, but there is something about him that makes you believe that he can be ruthless when needed. He is certainly relentless and his cat and mouse game with Jack in the 1920s sections of the book were fun to see play out. It makes it all the more believable, perhaps, that they two should find themselves working together in Paaske’s Detective Agency, as there is a clear mutual respect, even when their goals are not exactly mutually compatible. Paaske is older but not necessarily wiser and no less likely ot be driven by his passion and his beliefs than Jack. They are a great team. Except when they aren’t …

The writing in this book is beautiful as always, the scene setting just perfect. Whether it is 1920s or 1930s Norway, I felt myself being transported to a very different time and place, the author skilfully capturing the differing moods of the Nation, particularly when capturing the tensions of those fractions pre-war years. That sense of double dealing and subterfuge which sees Jack once again on the wrong side of the law, the betrayal that puts his life and his liberty under threat, felt so real, so authentic, it could be ripped from the pages of history. The mysterious presence of German Secret Service agents, the conflict and tensions in Spain and the impacts of that upon global politics, even the obliviousness of the Global governments to the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, were all depressingly true. None where exaggerated to make the story more exciting, they didn’t need to be. But they did serve perfectly to that sense of threat and urgency surrounding the seemingly straightforward case which Paaske and jack are engaged upon in the first place and which brings Jack face to face with a ghost from his past.

This is a thriller, yes, but it is also a skilfully crafted tale of love, passion, friendship and betrayal. A story in which murder and political unrest play second fiddle to the character led dramas that we watch unfol. The action moves in an almost seamless transition between the past and the present, each new memory of Jack’s past informing the very dark truth of his present, the two stories and the lives of all the characters so inextricably linked that there almost an inevitability about what comes to pass. If you love KJell Ola Dahl’s writing, if you loved The Courier, then you are bound to love this book. I most definitely recommend it and I think that Jack Rivers is a character who will live on in my mind for quite some time.

About the Author

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries, and he lives in Oslo.

Author Links: Twitter

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