Welcome to the nbmagazine.co.uk stop on the blog tour for The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl!
Here’s a little info about the book:
In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In great haste, she escapes to Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester’s childhood best friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.
And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…
And about author Kjell Ola Dahl:
One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries, and he lives in Oslo.
And here’s Paul Burke’s review of The Courier:
“I did work with this story for a long time as a side project, without being able to start it properly. For most of that time I did research. I had the inspiration, but I had the wrong focus for a long time – Ester was a less important character. When I started to focus on her, the story was suddenly there, right before me – and I wrote very quickly after that.” Kjell Ola Dahl on The Courier.
The Courier is one of the best historical thrillers you will read this year, it’s both intelligent and heartfelt. This is not just the kind of first-rate murder mystery that you would expect from Dahl, it’s also a far-reaching and immensely powerful story of war, occupation and the rebuilding of a country when democracy is restored. The story and the characters will stay with you for a long time because there is an energy and vitality to this novel that lifts the story to another level. For a few hundred pages, readers get to live and breathe the experience of a small group of ordinary people doing extraordinary things under the most difficult of circumstances. You may ask yourself would you be able to exhibit the same courage and make the same brave choices? But this group has another enemy, in the midst of the German occupation a small group of Norwegian resistance fighters have to deal with a personal tragedy when one of their number is murdered. There is no way to investigate while the fascists have power and so the death will have a profound and devastating effect on the lives of the survivors. The truth about what happened to Åse Falkum will remain a secret for decades. The Courier has an elegant and intricate plot, and is stylishly written, this is a novel that hits a home run with every play.
There has always been a strong vein of realism in Dahl’s writing, it’s one of the things that makes him a leading exponent of Nordic Noir and an inspiration to other crime writers. It’s also part of the reason this novel is so relatable, it feels like the experience of real people going through war and it’s aftermath. The Courier is possessed of something more though, there’s an indefinable special quality here, something to do with the alchemical reaction of the component parts, this feels like a labour of love. Dahl says that The Courier was a long time in the making and that elevating Ester from a minor to a central role gave the story the impetus it needed to really develop. This isn’t just Ester’s story, but in her we sense an exceptional courage and perseverance. The betrayal and loss she experiences as a Jewish woman who loses her family in the Holocaust adds another dimension to the depth of the story and lends gravitas to the murder mystery at the heart of the novel.
Fans of Kjell Ola Dahl will know that he likes to explore different aspects of the crime genre with each new novel he writes. There are marked differences in style (sub-genre) between the novels in the Frølich and Gunnarstranda police procedural series. The Courier is Dahl’s first historical thriller, it’s certainly a very good crime novel, but I hesitate to define it solely on that basis because it is an ambitious literary work too; the history and politics of the time and the experience of the people are integral to the plot. There is an impressive insight into the war, the Holocaust, and the occupation, an understanding of the danger the resistance faced but their vital role in maintaining sanity under fascism. The Courier is a match for most contemporary novels exploring the past as a means of better understanding the present. The novel chimes with history and teems with personal stories that reflect the human tragedy of the times, it’s a deeply compassionate read. Dahl understands that the impact of war is best understood not through macro events or tectonic shifts, major battles and the clash of ideologies, but through the very personal stories of individuals, the small details of daily life, the things we empathize with as readers.
The novel opens in Oslo, August 2015 – Turid, now in her seventies, is watching daytime TV with no real purpose until she sees a bracelet displayed on a programme about an upcoming auction. Guri Holter is showing a distinctive piece of jewellery about to go under the hammer. However, this bracelet belongs to Turid, her mother gave it to her, it was stolen nearly fifty years ago. When Turid confronts the auctioneer with a police report from all those years ago the woman refuses to stop the sale going ahead. So Turid wrangles Hans Grabbe, a semi-retired solicitor, into taking up her cause, this is a battle she doesn’t intend to lose.
Oslo, October, 1942 – Ester weaves her way across the city, dodging German soldiers. When she reaches her father’s shop, she sees the Stapo (Norwegian fascists in their blue uniforms) dragging her father into the back of a black maria. One of Quisling’s hurden thugs is posting a notice on the shop door: “Judisches Geschaft” (Jewish Shop). There is nothing Ester can do except flee, she goes to Åse and Gerhard’s flat, Gerhard is just leaving on a mission for the resistance. If Ester stays with Åse and her daughter, Turid, they too will be at risk. She has to get to Sweden but there is one last job to do first, deliver the ‘London News’ to a courier at the local station. As she does so Ester realises that she is being followed and she barely escapes capture, finally making it to Sweden. With Gerhard away, Åse gets a visit from Erik, he has always fancied her, he has contraband goods and the pair begin drinking but they are being watched.
Sverre is a radio operator for the resistance, he is surprised when Gerhard Fulkum turns up on his doorstep, it’s against all protocol to meet like this. But Gerhard tells him that on returning home he saw the Gestapo at his apartment block. The neighbours tell him that Åse has been murdered. The Nazis aren’t interested in Åse or her killer, they just want Gerhard. He too flees to Sweden and is caught up in the war, Åse’s death never gets properly investigated.
Oslo, 1967. Everyone believes Gerhard died during the war but he suddenly gets in touch with Sverre saying he wants to find out who killed Åse, he wants to see Turid, the daughter he was forced to abandon in 1942. Both Sverre and Ester are suspicious of Gerhard’s return as a complex tale of murder and betrayal unfolds over three timelines.
Dahl makes the personal trauma of a murder amidst the tragedy of war with so many deaths stand out, this is a fine murder mystery. The characters are rounded and complex and, as we meet them at three separate times in their lives, the story has to reflect their changing attitudes as tempered by age and experience. The background of shifting social attitudes and mores is also reflected in the three timelines. This is a tale of life under the occupation and how that affects a nation, during and after the war is over. The Courier is very good on the socio-political situation of the time, the relationship between Norway and neutral neighbour Sweden. This is a gritty but ultimately uplifting story. Superbly translated by Don Bartlett.
Paul Burke 5/5
The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl
Orenda Books 9781912374434 pbk Mar 2019