The Courier, by Kjell Ola Dahl – book review

There’s something about thrillers that are based on espionage and spycraft. The characters have to work things through, We as readers get to share their intelligence. As a result perhaps we feel more intelligent. Kjell Ola Dahl has stepped away from his procedurals to give us a novel that skips between the days of the Norwegian resistance, the late 1960s and the very recent past. And having completed it, I feel very intelligent indeed.

The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl - coverThe premise is that a character, believed to be have been killed in 1942, re-emerges in 1967. The arrival of ‘Gary Larson’ raises the question of what happened in 1942 but also causes others to consider his motives, their own motives and those of the people around them. All of a sudden there is no trust to be had in the whole of Oslo.

At times, I wonder whether just how many mysteries are being presented to us, and whether they should be unpeeled in a linear way. There’s a murder and a theft, but for me Dahl gets maximum return from an incident involving two couriers, some illegal newspapers, a drop at a metro station and the meaning of a platform alteration. The incident is first presented on page 16, but is referred to a number of times – and the final explanation gives a flavour of the ingenuity required of Resistance agents. 

But it was sad to see how quickly the relationships between former allies deteriorated. It is as though once there was not a common enemy, previous team-mates deployed their skills against each other. Dahl is careful to show that the three main protagonists have similar levels of skills and there is mutual respect between them as they spy on each other or break into each others’ homes. By the way, I pictured Sverre Fenstad as Varys from Game of Thrones. More seriously, we are given enough on each main character to enable us to understand what they are doing: we understand that the pressures of war test citizens’ bravery and moral fibre and Dahl goes out of his way not to patronise characters nor readers. We do, I think, want them to get through this together if they possibly can.

Don Bartlett has done a great job in translating what at times can be highly descriptive and at all times very careful and nuanced prose. Full marks, incidentally, for the the first time I have seen the word ‘tot’ (meaning small child) outside a red-top newspaper!

Although bullets are fired and fires are set Dahl wisely stays away from big budget set pieces. Instead, the novel crackles with tension throughout and is all the more satisfying for it. There’s cat and mouse galore (including a real cat). I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and hope Dahl will give us more standalone thrillers like it.

You can get The Courier here (affiliate link). 

Kjell Ola Dahl nominated his Secret Library – check it out.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour, viz:

courier blog poster 2019.jpg


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