Little Drummer, by Kjell Ola Dahl – book review

Many many years ago I studied development economics. Later on, I’d work to support literacy projects in what we had not yet learned to call the Global South. So I used to know a little bit about this stuff. This week I’ve been reading Little Drummer, a thriller by the legendary Kjell Ola Dahl, which was published in Norway back in 2003 but is now available in English for the first time. Now some of Little Drummer is set in Kenya, and touches on the ethics of different types of international development. I find myself thinking about the subject in a new way.

Front cover of Little Drummer by Kjell Ola Dahl

On this blog I often write about crime novelists who use their platform to give voice to the voiceless and to speak up for the powerless. Here we go again, you might think, but you’d be quite wrong. The passage I’m referring to is almost an aside. It links to the idea behind the plot but it’s incidental and idea could easily be missed completely.

Yes there’s a trip to Kenya, but this isn’t about Kenya. Yes, there’s fraud and exploitation of the poorest, but this isn’t about that either. Dahl is more interested in the characters he has created than in the wild chases he sends them on. Gunnarstranda and Frølich are doing their best to solve the crime and it’s thanks to some stubbornness that a murder has correctly been identified as such. But you feel that they are trying to act justly in the moment without thinking that they can change the world from the middle ranks of the Oslo CID. They want to find the perpetrator but they are just as interested in their matters of the heart (and, in Gunnarstrada’s case, matters of the lungs). Paradoxically, it is while Gunnarstrada muses about his own mortality that Dahl most obviously invites us to think about how we interact with the world around us. And then Gunnarstrada puts those thoughts from his mind – or, you know, life happens – and we have the chance to move on too. Dahl seems to trust us to think about this stuff but he leaves us to draw our own conclusions. A less confident and skilful writer would make more of a meal of it. Dahl wants to treat us as adults – plus, he’s got other things he wants to talk to us about. He references films such as Blow Up and songs such as The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. (An aside: is Marianne Faithfull really big in Scandinavia? Years later, Antti Tuomainen will reference this song in The Man Who Died. I’d love to feel that there’s some kind of cross-referencing going on, or some kind of challenge being set by Orenda Books to all their authors. Do you hear me, Will Carver and Sarah Sultoon? We want Marianne Faithfull Easter eggs.) He has loads of ideas and energy and comic asides and things to talk to us about. He hasn’t got time to baby us along. We rattle through. The language is fresh, thanks to Don Bartlett’s fine translation, and the pitch is just right.

Writing this now, I realise that I didn’t spend any time trying to work out who had done it. I trusted that Gunnarstrada and Frølich would sort it out. I think, given the material presented, that I would have had a pretty reasonable shot. That is not to say that I would make a decent detective. Our two heroes do too good a job of it for me to just be able to slot in for them. So I am left with thinking about the Global South. Perhaps that’s what Dahl planned all along.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.

Blog tour poster

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