The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl

From the PR: “The award-winning Godfather of Nordic Noir returns with a fascinating and richly authentic portrait of Oslo’s interwar years, featuring Nazis operating secretly on Norwegian soil and militant socialists readying workers for war…

Oslo, 1938. War is in the air and Europe is in turmoil. Hitler ’s Germany has occupied Austria and is threatening Czechoslovakia; civil war rages in Spain and Mussolini reigns in Italy.

When a woman turns up at the office of police-turned-private investigator Ludvig Paaske, he and his assistant – his one-time nemesis and former drug-smuggler, Jack Rivers – begin a seemingly straightforward investigation into marital infidelity.

But all is not what it seems. Soon, Jack is accused of murder, sending them on a trail which leads back to the 1920s, to prohibition-era Norway, to the smugglers, sex workers and hoodlums of his criminal past … and an extraordinary secret.”

There are few genres I enjoy more than a good slab of historical fiction. Of course, setting a novel in the past is no guarantee of a good entry into the genre and trying too hard to wedge a story in a time and place for no other reason than a writer’s fancy will result in a novel stifled by too many era-cliches and historical tropes, something too many authors who should know better have fallen prey to. What this means is that in a crowded genre, it’s easier to come across pyrite than the real thing.

However, having already given us the magnificent The Courier in 2019, Kjell Ola Dahl has once again given us a masterclass in historical fiction with The Assistant: a wonderfully plotted, sophisticated slow-burning thriller that makes for a highly addictive and rewarding read.

The problem with a book this good is reviewing it in a way that does it any justice. Having already been familiar with Kjell Ola Dahl via his Oslo Detective’s series, The Courier blew me away and here he’s done it again. The Assistant is an absolute belter of a read, it hooked me in from the outset and delivers a wonderfully complex story line that’s set in two distinct and different time periods – a Norway under the shadow of a looming global conflict and the prohibition-era of the 1920’s. There’s never a sensation that the story could have taken place at any other time and yet nor is there a sense that the author is using history as a crutch to prop up the narrative. It’s absolutely delicious in this.

Whether we’re talking about an Oslo Detective novel or a stand alone such as The Assistant, Dahl has a real gift for creating intricate and meticulously plotted story lines that are a real joy to behold as they come together – especially when elements span across two decades. Not rushed, but to be savoured like a good brew. He’s another of those writers you feel you wouldn’t want to play chess, so complete is his mastery of the long game.

The characters are both timeless and very much of their time. They’re also bloody brilliantly portrayed of course but that goes without saying with Dahl – he’s a master of the written word and getting to read these novels is always a real pleasure.

A superb story that lives and breathes in its historical setting without exploiting it, compelling characters and a genuine mystery all told with Kjell Ola Dahl’s glorious narrative style – no fool’s gold here: The Assistant is definitely one of Dahl, and the genre’s, finest.

Thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of The Assistant and to Anne Cater for inviting me to review and take part in the blog tour.

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