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Dahl, K O - 'The Fourth Man' (translated by Don Bartlett)
Paperback: 288 pages (Mar. 2007) Publisher: Faber and Faber ISBN: 0571230911

After a police operation goes wrong, Inspector Frank Frolich comes into contact with Elisabeth Faremo. A while after, they meet again, and embark upon a fevered, intense affair. However, their relationship becomes more complicated when Frolich learns that Elisabeth is the sister of a known local gang-member, Johnny Faremo. And, after Elisabeth disappears shortly after Johnny is implicated in a crime, Frolich is plunged into both an emotional tempest and a complex investigation which calls into question every assumption he'd made about their relationship. Were things as they seemed? Frolich is convinced they were, but how else to explain the things that have happened since, and the even more shattering things which will happen after?

I've no idea where this novel falls into the supposed Frolich/Gunnarstranda series (Since writing that I've found out it's the fifth!). Usually, there are clues, either in the book or somewhere on the internet, but unfortunately all the information I can find on K O (Kjell Ola) Dahl is in Norwegian. Wherever it comes in Dahl's canon (though it stands alone very well, suggesting it might be among the first, it also assumes a familiarity with the two lead characters which suggests it might be a much later entry), it doesn't really matter, as this stands very well by itself, and could plausibly be an excellent standalone novel if one didn't know better.

THE FOURTH MAN is another example of a great Scandinavian translation, but it is also rather different from some of those we've seen before. It's not much like the probing psychological novels of Karins Fossum or Alvtegen; it's not got the richness of Jo Nesbo's big thrillers, the detailed police-work of Ake Edwardson or Henning Mankell, or the elegant stylishness of Hakan Nesser or Arnaldur Indridason. THE FOURTH MAN seems to have a style unique among those we've seen so far. Instead, this has more in common with the American school, of hard-boiled noirish novels. Its style is quite lean, but characterised with a psychological depth that makes the writing muscular. Indeed, the descriptive writing is occasionally brilliant:

"The woman lit a cigarette from the stub of the one she'd just finished. Her hand shook. When she stood like that, concentrated and bent forwards, she also revealed the pouches of fat on her hips and thighs, a network of wrinkles between cheek and chin, a head wreathed by lifeless, unwashed hair, in turn wreathed by blue cigarette smoke. She was the crowning glory of a total work of art: the materialized essence of litter, blaring radio, mess and an aura of liberated indifference."

But there are some lexical low-lights, too!: "Vermillion tongues of cloud licked between ochre-yellow flames above the azure-blue aura over the trees." (Though I admit, some of the fault here could lie in translation.)

THE FOURTH MAN begins feverishly, intensely, and unexpectedly, with the affair which whips up between Frank and Elisabeth. From the quick rush of the first chapters, it soon turns into a dark psychological thriller where Frank is left reeling, wandering whether the things he thinks are true really are. From there it morphs into a complex and involved police investigation into fire, theft and death. It's a mix, really, of the noirish and the psychological, almost a blend of the European and American schools, and it works very well. The characters and plot are compelling, the case-shifting events seemingly never-ending to keep the reader and police permanently on their toes. The only pressing flaw is that it does get a little complex and involved, with various criminals and crimes almost clotting up. However, particularly careful concentration on the plot should remedy this.

Overall, THE FOURTH MAN is well-worth reading, another excellent translated crime novel. I recommend it very highly, especially as it's ever-so-slightly different from those we've seen recently. Another author to add to the list, then.

Read another review of THE FOURTH MAN.

Fiona Walker, England
September 2007

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 1/11/2009 11:04