Kjell Ola Dahl is a Norwegian writer best known for his contemporary crime novels set in Oslo. The Courier is a standalone story and a departure from the author’s usual work. Rather than a contemporary setting, instead we have a historical thriller tackling the thorny issues of the Nazi occupation of Norway and persecution of the Scandinavian nation’s Jewish population.

Ester is a young Jewish woman in Oslo. The year is 1942 and the Nazi’s occupy Norway with the collaboration of Norwegian fascists. She works with the resistance, distributing illegal newspapers. But at the outset of this novel, she witnesses her father being arrested, his shop shuttered for being a Jewish business, then narrowly avoids being arrested, the local Gestapo having been alerted to where she is meeting her contact to distribute the papers. Ester now has no choice but to go on the run. First, she hides at the house of her friends, Gerhard and Åse Falkum, before moving on to the be smuggled out of Norway into Sweden. In Sweden, Ester hears to her horror that just after she left Norway Åse was murdered, her baby in its cot nearby. Gerhard is under suspicion for the murder, though the resistance reckons on the culprit being a Nazi, luxuries being found in the house. Gerhard also flees to Sweden and is forced to leave his daughter, Turid, behind in the care of others. Later, Gerhard appears to die in a fire at a meeting with the resistance but years later he reappears, determined to find out once and for all who murdered Åse.

The Courier unfolds along two separate timelines told in interchanging chapters. The first timeline is in the 1940s and tells of Ester and Gerhard’s interactions in wartime Oslo. The second timeline occurs in the 1960s when Gerhard reappears seeking what, we are unsure. Does he want to reconnect with Turid? Does he want justice for Åse’s death? Does he want vengeance?

This is an intriguing read and the characterisation is told deftly. It drills down into a murky period of history in which there are tragedies and mysteries, not a few people would rather remain hidden. Recently I was listening to a BBC World true-crime/mystery podcast about the Isdal woman – a woman who’s indentity remains unknown whose charred corpse was found in the Isdalen valley in Norway in 1970. Many theories surround her – was she a spy?, was her death linked to Norway’s wartime past?

While fictional, the plot of The Courier deals with similar themes, for there were and are events which remain unexplained from the war and the decades after. Indeed, as Gerhard tries to uncover the truth his very presence in Norway is unwelcome to many of the other characters and this keeps the reader guessing as what they have to hide. The author handles the plot deftly and both timelines work well with each other making this a very satisfying historical mystery.

James Pierson 5/5

The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl
Orenda Books 9781912374434 pbk Mar 2019