Wednesday, June 24, 2009
K.O. Dahl's 3rd "Oslo Detectives" novel to arrive in English
K.O. Dahl's detective stories are distinguished by a couple of characteristic features. First, unlike most crime fiction, the narrative focus is split between a younger, fatter policeman, Frølich, and his older, thinner superior officer (with a strategic comb-over), Gunnarstranda. Another feature of the novels is that Dahl's stories are pure police procedural: The cops are constantly discussing what they've found out and going over possible theories of the crime, resulting in a kind of looping or spiralling structure with frequent repetition of facts. The Last Fix, the third of Dahl's novels to reach English (in Don Bartlett's translation), begins more like a cozy or puzzle mystery, with a 70-page long story about a recovering junkie who is attacked at her job and then feels obliged to attend a very unpleasant dinner party hosted by her therapist and the therapist's husband. As she escapes the party (and the husband's groping hands), her path leads to a murder (and to other murders later in the story). That 70-page tale and a 70-page coda (which includes a very unusual chase scene and the revelation of the murderer) frame a 425-page central section that is almost entirely concerned with Frølich and Gunnarstranda's investigation, which is mostly wheel-spinning with occasional lurches forward when a new fact is discovered. What saves that central section from getting bogged down or boring is the structure (short chapters with a lot of dialogue) and the personalities of the dyspeptic duo at the center of the story. Frølich and Gunnarstranda bicker constantly like an old married couple, though Gunnarstranda frequently pulls rank and drags Frølich into line. They are not brilliant investigators, mostly worrying the mystery like a dog with an old bone until something shakes loose--and the result is frequently quite funny. Though neither character is particularly likable or charming, they are both quite vivid, and they both have a determination and a moral sense that ultimately gives a social conscience to the story that is a common characteristic of the Scandinavian crime wave. Dahl's novels probably have more in common with Håkan Nesser's than most of the other translated Nordic crime fiction, except for the dual central character and the firm grounding in a very real Oslo (where Nesser's ensemble of detectives is, thus far in the translated novels, clearly centered on Van Veetern and the books are set in a hypothetical North European country). Both Dahl and Nesser include snappy and frequently snappish dialogue (on the part of both the police and the witnesses), and both adhere to the procedural method rather than the mystery or thriller. In Dahl, there is less of the "least likely suspect" and more of the twist and turn of new information typical of the pure procedural (in Nesser's books, the murderer is more likely to be someone the reader is familiar with, and in Dahl it can be a very peripheral character). Both have distinctive voices, and both have comic elements based in the characters' personalities. The final revelation of the plot of The Last Fix (and the explanation of the English title, more on that in a minute) is a bit strained, more poetic justice than naturalistic event, but by that point Frølich and Gunnarstranda know a lot more than they can prove about what has happened (it's not a forensic series, though there is a forensic specialist in the stories: they mostly learn what's going on by talking to people). The original title was En liten gyllen ring, which means "a little gold ring," and that is actually an image (and an object) that bridges the opening and closing sections (and provides the title for the long middle section). It's a better title for the book, but I guess Faber, the publisher, wanted a something that emphasized the drug culture that underlies the book's events (though not actually the main thrust of the story). The ring suggests the themes of love and desire (both of a sexual sort and of a more existential sort) that the story is really about. Dahl contrasts social interactions with the characters' personal aspirations: the two being frequently in conflict, leading to the violence on which the story relies. And filtering the themes of love, family, social ills, conflict, and desire through the dyspeptic duo of Frølich and Gunnarstranda is a brilliant device, grounding the big themes in daily life, in comedy, and in the slog of police work.