Smoke Screen, the much-awaited second in the Blix/Ramm series of thrillers co-authored by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, is a novel of contrasts. I imagine Horst and Enger in their control room, pushing buttons, dialling things up and down, switching tack when we least expect it.
Death Deserved ended with a bang, and it’s this bang that sets up this novel with its twin tracks. Blix gets a cold case to solve. For Emma, it’s more personal: her boyfriend is killed in the explosion. The first half of the novel sees these themes slowly unpeeled. In true Nordic Noir tradition, Blix and sidekick Kovak are hanging around and driving about, pursuing dead ends and waiting for data. Meanwhile Horst and Enger portray Emma’s guilt and grief sympathetically but acutely. Megan Turney does a great job in translation.
Those contrasts feed into Blix’s policing. Not for him the by-the-book approach of his boss, Fosse (of whom we see too little this time round). He carries regrets that he doesn’t quite explain to his differing proteges. Many have described his relationship with Emma Ramm as that of an elder relative, and he seems to be supportive of Kovak, but when his own daughter, Iselin, announces that she wants to join the police, ‘his entire body…[urges]…him to steer her away from the track she was heading towards.’ We like Blix and we like Ramm. They’re three-dimensional characters but the development never feels forced or cliched.
But it’s with the crime itself that Enger and Horst really work on us. This cold case reignites because one of the protagonists is Unreliable. The other is Very Reliable Indeed and it’s this tension that makes things spill over. The climactic stand-off is especially good: flitting between high-stakes tension and explosive action.
I spent some time during this novel wondering whether Horst and Enger would provide the social commentary for which they are well known as solo writers. There is a bit, dotted among the chapters. But the key passages almost pass you by, as they weave in and out of the set piece climax. They concern redemption and the fact that it can be achieved for reasons that are broken, and that broken people don’t always seem broken: some are clearly so by society’s measures but others live what are regarded as normal lives until they are not. The smoke screen most obviously refers to a crime masquerading as something else, but also to people hiding in plain sight.
Smoke Screen is from two of our most reliable Norwegian crime writers. But that doesn’t mean that they give us what we think we’re expecting. Yes, it’s a fusion of classic Noir and thriller. But it’s more complex, more ambitious, and ultimately more fulfilling than that.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour, which we have the honour to bring to a close today.