#Bookvent – Celebrating my top reads of 2021
My day twelve #bookvent choice is by an author whose work I really have come to love over the past few years. I’ve only really started reading fiction in translation in the past few years thanks to the wonderful Orenda Books, and this author is one of their amazing team of writers from Norway, a country I am starting to realise is absolutely awash with literary awesomeness. Whilst the author is well known for his ongoing Detective series, this book is a second historical standalone, one I found myself drawn into from the very beginning courtesy of a brilliant, and engaging protagonist and the overwhelming sense of the chase that opens the story. My twelfth pick is …
The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl
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.
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. Set over two time periods, the 1920s, when Jack is in the early moments of his smuggling career, and the late 1930s, when Norway is just falling under the reach of Nazi Germany, the story is a wonderful blend of mystery, spy thriller and perhaps a touch of forbidden romance that kept me engaged, enthralled and thoroughly entertained from start to finish. I loved the character of Jack Rivers. There is just something about him, his relaxed persona, that knowledge that he is skirting around the wrong side of the law, his romanticism, that makes him an irresistible character to spend time with. 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 is a stark contrast to Paaske who, whilst on the ‘right’ side of the law, I never quite trusted. Perhaps because I was so in favour of Jack, but Kjell Ola Dahl did the perfect job of portraying their cat and mouse game that turned into the most unlikely of alliances over time. The writing in this book is beautiful as always, the scene setting just perfect. 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. This book is more than just a thriller, it is 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. There is a seamless transition between the past and the present, the two stories and the lives of all the characters so inextricably linked that there almost an inevitability about what comes to pass. A perfect translation by Don Bartlett made this story just flow and I couldn’t put it down. I loved The Courier, the author’s last foray into historical crime fiction, but this book just really caught me, and Jack Rivers is a character I will remember for a very long time. I just hope that this adventure is far from being his last. Most certainly recommended.
You can read my full review of The Assistant right here.
Happy #bookvent reading all