Translated by Don Bartlett
Recently, the books I’ve enjoyed the most have been historical fiction – A Net For Small Fishes by Lucy Jago; Blackout by Simon Scarrow – but they all also contain an element of the crime fiction I love so much. This book’s also historical crime fiction, and, as expected from Orenda Books and the author, very, very good!
What appealed to me initially was that it reminded me slightly of The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck – one of our set books in O-grade English. It’s really just the setting and the rough historical period, but it was a book that always stuck in my mind from school as a favourite…and after reading this, I think I’ll be re-reading it soon.
The novel moves between two periods, 1924 and 1938, and has two main characters. There’s Jack Rivers, who, in 1924 is an assistant to a man called Arvid Bjerke, who runs a legitimate bus and car business with his wife Julie. He also has a network smuggling and distributing spirits, which were prohibited in 1924. Jack is one of his drivers, dropping off the bootleg booze to the various shops which were Bjerke’s customers. He’s pursued pretty vigorously by the police, particularly a policeman called Ludvig Paaske.
But by 1938 Jack has gone straight and become assistant to Paaske, who is no longer a policeman but runs a detective agency. As per the standard noir novel, they are visited by a glamorous but mysterious woman who suspects her husband is having an affair. The investigation doesn’t lead to another woman, however, but dodgy dealings down at the docks, Nazi spies, and more dangerous doings. By this time, Norwegians are also banned from going to Spain to fight Franco’s fascist troops – which, as well as the prohibition, was something I really didn’t know. I think I’ll need to polish up my Norwegian history!
Jack is also, throughout the book, involved with a woman called Amalie – distinctive due to having one blue eye and one brown one. She’s ambitious for a better life, and despite her and Jack’s obvious attraction, she pulls no punches in letting him know she doesn’t think he’ll ever be available to provide this lifestyle. She also has a disabled brother, Johan, who needs care.
The translation is seamless and beautifully done, and the story grips from the start and doesn’t let go. None of the characters are to know how Norway – indeed, the whole of Europe – was on the very cusp of catastrophic change, and lives would be changed forever. This book gives us a thoroughly engrossing (and hugely enjoyable) picture of a Norway which will vanish forever. The characters – mainly Jack, but Paaske too – are likeable and vividly drawn. I massively enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more by the same author. This will definitely a contender for my top ten books of the year!
Very highly recommended!
A seemingly straightforward investigation into marital infidelity leads a PI and his ex-con assistant on a murderous trail, in a sophisticated, riveting 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.
With many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books, particularly to Anne for sorting out a proof paperback when my Kindle mysteriously mangled the e-galley I was initially sent.