When I pick up a thriller I am generally looking for three things, setting, characters and plot. Although this was my first Kjell Ola Dahl novel, he is of course a very well established author published in 14 countries, so it should be no surprise to find that he has command of his genre. The Courier has all three aspects, perfectly drawing both the physical and psychological landscape of wartime Norway, populating it with authentic characters and twisting through a story arc that alternates between 1942 and 1967 as he guides you to its shocking conclusion.
I was immediately drawn to The Courier when I saw its cover, it’s an evocative image and alongside the title had me keen to find out more. I’ve long been a fan of William Boyd and this felt like it might be in a similar vein to some of his work. It didn’t disappoint and if you have enjoyed novels such as Restless I feel sure you would enjoy this. Ester, the eponymous lead of the novel, has faced the cruellest of persecutions at the hand of the Nazis and it has inevitably shaped her. Her suffering is an immediate window of connection and understanding of the journey we take together in the story.
All of the characters flow in and out of your sympathies, the ambiguities of living through a war, with all of its horrors and uncertainties, blurring the lines between right and wrong and keeping the reader as much on edge about who to trust as the protagonists. This sense of how war intrudes on normal life with such intensity that it drives people’s choices and ultimately their character is stark and maybe warns against judging any individual too harshly. Yet at the ideological level, the actions of the Nazi occupiers are grotesque and soul destroying.
Despite the brutal backdrop, Dahl’s writing is absorbing and the visual descriptions envelope you in the setting, transporting you to another time like a walk down Duckett’s Passage in an episode of Goodnight Sweetheart, and the sights and sounds of occupied Norway and resistant Sweden fill your senses. This is a polished thriller, superbly translated by Don Bartlett, that has immediately put Kjell Ola Dahl onto my list of authors whose work can be trusted to deliver.
In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.
And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…
Written with Dahl’s trademark characterization and elegant plotting, The Courier sees the hugely respected godfather of Nordic Noir at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrific periods of modern history, in an exceptional, shocking thriller.
One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers (Oslo Detectives series) featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich.
In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015.
Follow Kjell Ola on Twitter @ko_dahl