Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Unni Lindell. Orkestergraven (Oslo: Aschenhoug, 2010)

Orkestergraven (The Orchestra Pit) is fifth in Lindell's series featuring police detective Cato Isaksen, (the story is also included in the TV-series made of her novels in 2009). The Norwegian title has an added sombre tone, because en "grav" also means a "grave." In this story, Isaksen is called to investigate the death of a woman found stabbed in a cold winter's night behind a trendy furniture store (which is now a garden centre) in the western part of Oslo.

The woman is Siv Ellen Blad, a violinist. The title, the occupation of the victim (although she also worked part-time at a post office) and several characters with large CD collections, give the story a musical flavour, but this theme does not significantly affect the course of the narrative.

The narrative's interest is very much with family life and its complications. The Blads, with a teenage daughter Maiken, were separated. The husband, Axel, has moved out to live with a new partner, who also has a son in his twenties. Ellen Blad has rented the basement of the large marital home to a single mother, who has a friend, a troubled young man with a problematic relationship with his own family. Cato Isaksen's family life is just as chaotic as those he is investigating: he has returned to live with his ex-wife and two older sons, but is involved in the care of his youngest son, whose mother is now in a relationship with a new (somewhat controlling or perhaps just jealous) partner. Families and relationships between parents and children criss-cross the narrative, not least Isaksen's relationship with his youngest son Georg.

Themes of family and parenthood are linked with questions about wealth and whether it brings happiness. The setting is very specific and significant: Vinderen on the T-bahn route 1, which meanders up the steep slope to Holmenkollen past large villas with apple orchards and heated driveways. This is a prosperous, wealthy and highly respectable neighbourhood of designer buggies, big Audis and shopping weekends in London. Lindell does not only give us the street where Ellen Blad lives, but she describes precisely the house (in the corner of Frognerseterveien and Dagaliveien) where Ellen's husband Axel now lives. This murder is located in the heart of comfortable, confident and secure Oslo and brought close to home to Lindell's audience.

The location gives the story a very explicit social dimension: as is so often the job of the detective, Cato Isaksen's job is to tear off the smooth, glossy mask of West-Oslo's wealthy and reveal the ugly, raw emotions beneath: greed, fear, loathing and desire.

Lindell offers more than just the traditional revealing of dark secrets. The tension and conflict between society's haves and have-nots, and how easy it is to slip between these categories, rumble beneath the surface of the narrative.

The pace of the police investigation is slow. The police fumble, they miss clues, occasionally they feel powerless. Witnesses and other people involved in the events have their own plans and motives; they are blinded by emotion; they hide or simply forget important details. Wally Steen is so upset by Isaksen's phone call that she hangs up without answering his crucial question.

This adds a sense of realism to the narrative. Lindell's characters behave in a way you might imagine real people to behave under pressure and in a chaotic aftermath of a violent death. In addition, the irrationality in people's behaviour is a source of tension and suspense. Lindell handles her characters well and shows their emotional states and turmoil through their behaviour. It is a shame that she has resorted to the old gimmick of opening and closing the novel with italicized sections giving us an agonized internal monologue of the killer. These sections are entirely superfluous.

Lindell creates convincing characters in all age groups; her children are as rounded as her adults. Perhaps this is not surprising as she is also a successful children's writer. There is certainly gender equality in this novel: the female characters (including the victim) are more active and determined than the male characters, despite the detective hero being a man.

The murder in Orkestergraven happens off the page. The narrative does not shock with violence; it entertains with suspense. Even in the final, dramatic scenes of the novel, this suspense remains realistic and the events believable. The focus of the story is in solving the murder. Yet there is enough in the narrative to make it a very good, traditional, detective story. The psychological depth of the characters, although not immense, is sufficient to make them interesting. The problems of parenthood and family relationships and the question of wealth and its effects add further food for thought.

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