Chameleon People by Hans Olav Lahlum

Review published on April 19, 2017.

Chameleon People is the fourth novel in the Inspector K2 series. It has a lighter in tone than the crime fiction I usually read, but the novel has depth and character. Reading Lahlum is a pleasant and engaging way to spend a couple of afternoons. Strong writing always stands out and Lahlum has an easy style that flows effortlessly. He skillfully unravels a very involved tale of murder and it’s consequences. A truly intriguing reading experience.

Chameleon People is set in 1972. Norway is in the throes of an EEC referendum. In this case the issue is whether or not they should join? Kolbjorn Kristiansen ‘K2’ is enjoying some time off with his girlfriend, Miriam, when he sees a young man come off his red bicycle in the street. The limping boy approaches Kristiansen’s flat and starts banging on the door, he knows that the foremost murder detective in Oslo lives here. He is adamant that he did not do ‘it’ and he wants K2 to help him. Before Kristiansen can determine just what ‘it’ actually is a pursuing pack of police officers turn up. The officers arrest the boy and he is led away in cuffs still protesting his innocence of the stabbing of Per Johan Fredriksen. One of the officers (implying that K2 has really excelled himself this time) turns to him and says: “….You have single-handedly caught Fredriksen’s killer without even leaving your flat”.

Kristiansen isn’t like a lot of detectives; he is already thinking that this ‘open and shut case’ is just a little too easy. What is he basing his suspicions on, the boy’s denial? There are witnesses who saw the boy talking to the murdered politician just before it happened, others who saw him with the bloodied knife in hand just after. The boy has to be guilty surely? Initially he won’t even give the police his name, then claims to be Marinus (a reference to the poor young Dutch man Marinus van der Lubbe, the scapegoat for the burning down of the Reichstag in 1933). Kristiansen loves to go against the grain and even if the boy is guilty he knows there has to be more to this story. The investigation leads to the family of the murdered man, a wife and three adult children, each standing to inherit a substantial fortune. Then there is the mistress and a strange tale of five friends (including Fredriksen and his wife), all present at the 1932 death of 21-year-old Eva Bjolhaugen, an event never investigated as a crime. Or maybe the motive is something else entirely. After all, emotions run high in an EEC referendum and there are questions about the victim’s political career and foreign links. What follows is an intriguing mystery with many strands, red herrings and all.

In that brief scene of the arrest you can gets sense of the novel; a ‘slam dunk’ case that obviously isn’t, a suspect caught red handed, and a detective who doesn’t want to conform. Everything is not as it seems. Lahlum presents a small group of suspects all with a motive and one of them is a killer. All this is very Agatha Christie, even down to the way Kristiansen likes to act alone in his investigation.

Chameleon People references the work of other detective writers and it is fun to recognise little vignettes. Lahlum says that this novel is dedicated to Ross MacDonald, an inspiration. In that sense his writing is a little like Boris Akunin’s (the Russian crime writer who uses a different writer as inspiration for each of his Fandorin novels). The story of Chameleon People is intriguing and Lahlum weaves historical motivations into the current crime story (still set in 1972). There is a little more sophistication, intelligence and knowing here than a Christie novel.

Kristiansen is a likeable slightly eccentric young detective, very determined and clever. However, he would be half the detective without his oracle, Patricia. Together they are a match for any killer and the truth will out.

Inspector Kristiansen, K2, was introduced in The Human Files set in 1968. Harald Olesen, hero of the Resistance to the Nazis during WWII, was murdered in his flat. K2 realises it has to be one of his fellow tenants and each has a reason for disliking Olesen. He teams up with Patricia, a clever young woman confined to a wheelchair, who acts as his sidekick and mental foil when he steps outside the usual methods to solve the crime. In the second novel, Satellite People, we have 10 guests at a dinner party and one dead body. The plotlines are clearly homage to Agatha Christie, the confined group of suspects all with something to hide and a killer to expose. I’m not a big fan of Agatha Christie but there is a universally recognised depth of characterisation in her work that Lahlum emulates. He knowingly plays with the format of the mystery to spin something very modern out of this period tale. Despite the lighter tone (I think this novel is a bit darker and a bit more political than the others in the series), there is a serious element to Lahlum’s writing; he likes to delve into the murky depths of Norwegian history and politics rather than just simply use personal motivations for the crime (although there is no clue in that for the reader here).

There is a contrast to the Norwegian crime literature many people may be familiar with: Jo Nesbo, Thomas Enger, Gunnar Staalesen, Karin Fossum. To paraphrase Barry Forshaw, the darkness of these novelists set against our perception of an ordered and peaceful state perhaps give Norwegian crime writing more force. However, themes of a dark past and endemic corruption persist in Lahlum’s work too.

Before Lahlum was published in English, Kari Dickson, who became his translator, described his work as: “….charming, witty and slightly wry retro-crime, a la Agatha Christie”. True, but I think there is a little more here and Chameleon People is also highly entertaining. Fortunately, after a taking a break, Lahlum has come back to write more K2 thrillers; look for them in translation from 2018 on.

Paul Burke 4/4

Chameleon People by Hans Olav Lahlum
Pan 9781509809509 pbk Mar 2017

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