In Torkil Damhaug’s novel Fireraiser, one character tells another that her psychiatrist has abandoned his medical practice in favour of writing crime novels. Cue “a mixture of laughter and contemptuous sneer”, provoked by the psychiatrist’s assumed preference for money over “making himself useful”. Damhaug, the author of four fine psychological thrillers bearing the heading the Oslo Crime Files, is himself a trained psychiatrist, but one should not approach his work with the cynicism exhibited by his characters. The novels, ably translated into English by Robert Ferguson, are both riveting reads and nuanced commentaries on the darkness that lurks at the heart of the Norwegian welfare state.
For the reader accustomed to the serial format of much crime writing, the Oslo Crime Files come as a refreshing surprise. The four novels are loosely grouped together by recurring characters, many of whom work within the justice system, but the central character varies from novel to novel. The central police figure in Medusa is Detective Chief Inspector Hans Magnus Viken, who is assisted by his police colleague Roar Horvath and the pathologist Jennifer Plåterud. All three appear in Death by Water, while Horvath emerges as a significant character in Fireraiser, and Plåterud takes centre stage in Certain Signs That You Are Dead. The doctor protagonist of Medusa treats a psychotic female patient, who later turns out to be the sister-in-law of Horvath’s best friend, Dan-Levi, a central character in Fireraiser – and so on, until a fine network of human relationships emerges. The law officials of the series move in and out of the police force, exhausted by the demands of the job and buffeted by equally demanding human relationships. Damhaug’s investigators are fallible and vulnerable human beings who are as much defined by their social interactions within the novels’ fictional world as are the criminals and victims whose actions they seek to uncover.
The picture Damhaug paints of Norwegian society is dark in the extreme. The series teems with marginal, neglected characters: immigrants from Eastern Europe and beyond; children growing up in dysfunctional or broken families; victims of child abuse; drug addicts and alcoholics. Family relationships are distorted by sibling rivalry, wilful deception, parental tyranny or sexual exploitation. Spaces that should be safe – children’s bedrooms, schools, hospitals, summerhouses – turn out to be the very places where we are at our most vulnerable. Those in positions of power are too damaged or weak themselves to resist temptation, leading to an endless cycle of exploitation that carries on down the generations. Grown men harass their girlfriends’ underage sisters; supply teachers invite schoolgirls to their homes; doctors fall into relationships with their trainees, psychologists with their patients. Yet, disturbingly but brilliantly, Damhaug suggests that we judge these characters at our peril, for we share their essential humanity and weakness.
Reviewed by Minna Vuohelainen
THE OSLO CRIME FILES: MEDUSA, DEATH BY WATER, FIRERAISER, CERTAIN SIGNS THAT YOU ARE DEAD
Written by Torkil Damhaug
Translated by Robert Ferguson
Published by Headline, 2015-2017
Dr Minna Vuohelainen is Lecturer in English at City, University of London. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century popular culture, including Gothic and crime fiction.