If you rate a book by its historical context, social insight and technical accomplishment then this Scandinavian story would be a full-on five-star phenomenon. It’s a consummate construction of complex timelines set in WW2 in Norway, the mid-1960s in Sweden, and the 21st century. A cold-blooded killing committed in the past can only be solved in the present, but the culprit’s identity is skilfully obscured by layers of shameful secrets – the distasteful reality of wartime collaboration, exploitative espionage, inter-agency rivalry and greed-driven opportunism.
Each time and place is painstakingly realised, and author Kjell Ola Dahl interlaces fascinating observations about the Norwegian resistance and the fate of Jewish citizens in Norway under Nazi occupation into the mystery.
The actual investigation is pretty thin, however. We have a murdered young mother whose partner is a known communist; her friend (the courier of the title) who delivers anti-Nazi newspapers for the underground resistance; her handler and a couple of others – there aren’t many options about who the murderer could be. The cover blurb talks about ‘shocking twists’ but I was neither shocked nor particularly surprised by whodunnit and why.
As with many books which employ multiple timelines, the rising tension depends heavily upon all the zig-zagging back and forth. Similarly, the story is told from several perspectives – making it quite fragmented. There’s little action or satisfying confrontation, and I became fairly frustrated with the repetitive sneaking around Stockholm’s backstreets. When the final great revelation arrived it was… well, somewhat so-what, and I felt fairly underwhelmed.
It didn’t help that I also struggled to form strong bonds with the characters – perhaps because their experiences were disjointed and diluted by the narrative device. To my shame, I admit to getting a couple of the key characters muddled up, which demonstrates how unengaged I was with them as people and the plot itself.
The Courier is much more like an exercise in historical realisation than a powerful crime drama, then. While it excels as the former, it didn’t work for me as the latter.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl is available at Amazon