The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl

Translated by Don Bartlett

Reviewed by Annabel

Kjell Ola Dahl is one of Norway’s foremost crime writers, especially known for his ‘Oslo detectives’ series, several of which are available in English translated by Don Bartlett. He has also written a couple of standalone historical crime novels, of which The Assistant is the latest, once again translated by Bartlett.

The Assistant has a dual timeline, the first beginning in 1924, and the second set at that interesting time in European politics just before WWII with the ongoing rise of the Nazis.

The novel begins in Kristiana in 1924. Norway is under prohibition and Jack Rivers is on one of his booze runs in the lorry, distributing the cans of illicit spirits to Arvid Bjerke’s customers with the help of Johan, Amalie’s brother. However, their luck is about to run out – someone has informed on them, and the police have set up a road block, and Ludvig Paaske, ‘the cop from hell’ is on their tail. They escape, just, thanks to a train coming between the police and Jack on the other side of the tracks. The next day, Jack reports back to Bjerke at his lakeside house where he is with Amalie, his mistress. Jack can’t bear to watch her with Bjerke. But there is no time for jealousy for the police arrive, Bjerke and Amalie escape leaving Jack for Paaske.

Paaske is perhaps ten years older than Jack, in his late thirties. A pretzel-like beard grows around his mouth and chin. […]

Paaske sits down at the table, lifts a fork and tastes the food on the untouched plate. ‘Good,’ he says. ‘Bjerke might be a good cook, but he’s married, and his wife isn’t here, either. […]  ‘Julie Bjerke’s with her parents in Hadeland. Are you wondering how I know?’

This first section thus introduces us to many of the important characters, Rivers and Paaske, who at this stage are bitter rivals and sworn enemies, but also Amalie and Julie who will be key in the ongoing drama.

Now we travel forward to Oslo in 1938. Paaske has now left the police and become a private detective, and his assistant is Jack, who has done his time. They are commissioned by a woman who calls herself ‘fru Gruber’ who suspects her husband of infidelity, or so she says. They follow him for a few days seeing him meet various other men, possibly Germans, but find no evidence of adultery. That’s that, case over – or is it? Jack is convinced that fru Gruber is not who she says she is, and that her husband is up to something. Jack persuades Paaske that they were being used, and that they need to investigate further which leads them into increasingly dangerous situations, and secrets dredged up from Jack’s past.

Norway in 1938 has become a greyer world, nominally neutral, but often a morally ambiguous country where Nazis operate behind closed doors and socialist workers are secretly preparing for war. Back in 1924 it was clearer which side people were on, but those from Jack’s past which is closing in on him are not necessarily on the same side anymore.

The Assistant is a sophisticated thriller, complicated and subtle, with two superb leads. As a bootlegger, Jack may have outwardly displayed a devil may care attitude, but he’s a different man now, or is he? He’s still an intuitive improviser, good in a crisis, but he proves now that he does care – in fact he always has. Paaske, by contrast, is more of a slippery fish. He’s Jack’s opposite in character, more calculating, but also a complex man. Why did he leave the police? They make a fascinating investigative duo, and I’d love to read more of their exploits.

Kjell Ola Dahl’s portrayal of this side of Norway ensures that the book drips with atmosphere and historical detail. From the crowded city streets and shadows of the docks, to skinny-dipping by a sunny lakeside cabin, the reader is there with the vividly portrayed characters. I particularly enjoyed the way that the brand of Nordic Noir depicted here overlaps at the edges with the world of espionage.

This was my first read of Kjell Ola Dahl’s work, (not to be confused with the Swedish author Arne Dahl). KO Dahl’s publisher, Orenda, is developing a fascinating list of European crime novels, and I definitely want to read more from it and by KO Dahl – The Assistant is absolutely top notch.

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books, and thanks Orenda Books and Random Tours for introducing this author to her.

Kjell Ola Dahl, The Assistant (Orenda, 2021) ISBN 9781913193652, paperback original, 276pp..

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