A fascinating read for any historical crime fiction lover: The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl tr. Don Bartlett #TheAssistant #bookreview

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.

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Hi and welcome to my review of The Assistant!

A few years ago, I read my first Kjell Ola Dahl novel, The Courier, and since then I’ve been reading my way through his Oslo Detectives series. When I first heard of The Assistant I was hoping it would be another instalment in that series, but when I learnt it was a standalone historical thriller, I was even more excited: I’ve always loved thrillers and over the last couple of years I have found myself falling in love with historical fiction and I know I can always count on Kjell Ola Dahl to expertly combine outstanding historical fiction with great crime fiction. The Assistant? Case in point.

The Assistant kicks off in Oslo – or Kristiania as it was then called – in 1924. Jack Rivers is making illegal alcohol rounds and is nabbed by his arch nemesis police officer Ludvig Paaske, the Batman to his Joker, if you will. When the story jumps to Oslo in 1938, Paaske has become a private investigator and Rivers his assistant. Quite the twist, what a change of heart, and one that immediately sparked my curiosity: what on earth had moved these men to become co-workers, or to continue the analogy: what had made Rivers the Robin to Paaske’s Batman?!

That’s not the main mystery of course, that kicks off when Paaske is visited by a woman who wants him to investigate her husband whom she suspects of infidelity. Only, said woman is not who she claims to be, and this investigation not as cut and dried as it seems at first.

And so, my dear friends, after few chapters my little thrill(er)-loving heart was beating a joyful tattoo at all this mystery and intrigue!

After finding out more about the Second World War from a Norwegian perspective in The Courier, I learnt about two other fascinating periods in Norwegian history: interbellum-Norway on the one hand, and the Norwegian prohibition era on the other. Talk to me about prohibition and I’ll tell you all about US bootleggers, speakeasies, the Roaring 20s in North America. But bootleggers in Norway, selling illegal hooch?! Who knew?! (Well maybe you did, but I sure as hell as didn’t.) It turns out that prohibition-era Norway is just as fascinating as prohibition-era USA and I enjoyed this look at this part of history in this part of the world tremendously. 

The Assistant is clearly well researched but it doesn’t for one moment read as anything other than fiction. It is never dry, it is never boring, it’s just a great crime thriller that happens to be set in the past and therefore emanates a certain zeitgeist and highlights some historical figures and events through the fictional characters and events. It is my favourite way of reading about history, because while the focus is on the fictional part, I always feel I’ve learnt something without really trying.

The Assistant is a fascinating read for any historical crime fiction lover. Recommended!

The Assistant is out now in all digital formats and will be out in paperback on 13 May.

Huge thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy! All opinions are still my own.

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