Sister, by Kjell Ola Dahl – book review

How many different ways are there to tell a police procedural story? That’s what I want to know right now because I’ve just finished Sister and Kjell Ola Dahl takes classic themes and tropes and serves them up fresh. Sister is the ninth in the Oslo Detective series, and Frølich has become a private detective. There are plenty of similarities with Philip Marlowe, though Dahl’s approach is somewhat more accessible than Chandler’s: Frølich’s internal voice is less thunderous and the narrative voice more clearly the writer’s. Don Bartlett does a fine job in translating Dahl’s experimentation into tight and immediate prose.

cover of Sister by Kjell Ola Dahl

I come away, as always with Dahl, thinking that I’d be hopeless at this line of work. Frølich has multiple clients, all offering competing ideas of what may be one case or two. People keep turning up at his office and offering him money or beating him up (or both at the same time). Nobody is who or what they seem, and that counts for his old colleagues in the police force too, who may be utterly corrupt and compromised both in an old case of arson and in a death which they think is a suicide and which we don’t. There are times towards the end that Dahl sits us down like a kindly teacher might with a keen but slow student and spells out what different clues mean, so he knows we’ve caught up before we’re left behind again. This isn’t a story about refugees, not really, but there are refugees in it, and there’s a rather interesting paragraph in which we’re kind of assured that we won’t be left abandoned: we’ll be walked through the key issues. That said, the refugees are abandoned, even if a theme of this novel is working out what your key moral priorities might be. Frølich has to think about what’s important to him and why he might pursue – or not pursue – a particular case.

I find the frequent changes in pace quite exhilarating: there are sleepless nights and then a road trip which explores work/life balances and the idea of place. As part of my own exploration of this I should at some point put together a Spotify playlist with the blues and AOR tracks that pepper the text.

I should mention the plot, a little. Some people are searching for a woman, who may or may not exist. Some of these people die. An old case may provide meaning to this search, or may simply shine a light on the junction between police incompetence, institutional indifference to victims of crime, and the media’s complicity in developing a narrative that’s wildly unhelpful to the public good. Plenty of contemporary relevance, then.

But at the end, Dahl almost pulls the whole thing down. What is the point, he almost asks. Where is the redemption? Where is the healing, and the forgiveness, and who will judge? I’m not sure that we know, and that is why Dahl remains one of the finest writers in the field.

Thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part on the blog tour, and to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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