Friday, 16 January 2015

K. O. Dahl. The Fourth Man (Faber and Faber, 2007)

The Fourth Man by K. O. Dahl (1958- ) was first published in Norwegian in 2005. The original title, Den fjerde raneren  or The fourth robber” is not gender-specific. It is worth noting that the English title removes any potential for female participation present in the original title of this novel where the identity of the fourth person involved is critical to the plot and where the narrative seems to have a problem with women. The Fourth Man was the first of Dahl’s novels to be published in English (in 2007), but it is the fifth in his series about the police detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich.

Of these two main characters, Gunnarstranda is much more interesting than Frølich, who wears his somewhat chaotic and irrational heart on his sleeve. Gunnarstranda is an experienced, street-wise detective – a man who trusts his instincts and does not believe in coincidences (p47). We see Gunnarstranda through his actions, while the internal workings of Frølich’s mind are exposed to us throughout. Perversely, this makes Gunnarstranda’s character more engaging. Perhaps more by accident than design, the other mechanism that gives Gunnarstranda depth is the way the narrative gives us intriguing glimpses into his private life; his relationship with his goldfish (p149) and his lady-friend Tove (p184). These create the impression that there is more to the man than is revealed in these pages. As this is the fifth story in the series, Gunnarstranda’s character has of course already been established and built up in previous novels for Norwegian readers.

Frank Frølich’s love-life is crucial in The Fourth Man. The opening chapters establish his infatuation with Elisabeth Faremo. It is described in terms of a disease: “Such thoughts are a virus.” (p10) The Fourth Man has a strong opening and Dahl depicts the fluctuations of Frølich’s emotions well. In terms of psychology, the first part of the novel, entitled “Pas de Deux” is the most convincing one.

Frølich’s physical symptoms resulting from his desire both for Elisabeth Faremo and for resolving the mystery she is part of, are described in detail. His bodily sensations are given almost as much attention as his thoughts (see, for example, pp116, 117, 121, 122, 132, 155, 190, 199, 236, 249). This gives the narrative a romantic and melodramatic feel. Frølich’s intense involvement with Elisabeth Faremo leads him to be entangled in robbery and murder in a way which compromises his professional integrity. It sounds like a good idea to intensify the tension of the story by deep emotional involvement of the detective hero and his near mental breakdown under the strain of the investigation that has become personal. But Dahl does not quite succeed in pulling it off. Frølich’s motivations remain unclear: on the one hand he is investigating a crime, but he also acts out of emotional confusion and compulsion. This mix leaves some steps of the investigation and (thereby) of the narrative illogical and lacking rational explanation.

More importantly, it is difficult to sympathize with Frølich’s situation because his feelings for Elisabeth Faremo do not come across as convincing. The basis of Frølich’s attachment to Elisabeth Faremo is a strong physical attraction towards a beautiful, mysterious stranger. We do not get to know her. There is a problem with women in this novel. 

There are awkward misogynistic comments scattered in the text. For example, it is not quite clear what is the significance of Emil Yttergjerde’s lament about women and bad customer service at a Munkedamsveien whorehouse (p59). There are sentences that jump out as crude from an otherwise neutral language. They may just be a clumsy attempt to show the male characters as tough and the text as hard-boiled. Gunnarstranda’s comment about an “alibi as thin as a pussy hair” (p61), a poster outside a bar showing “the regulation picture of a stripper climaxing [?], wrapped around a fireman’s pole” (p129) and Gunnarstranda’s conclusion that “Merethe Sandmo’s pussy is not necessarily a motive here” (p98) add to a hostility against women present in the narrative.

There are several scenes that depict the relationship between men and women as uneasy and confrontational: Frølich’s visit to a strip-club (pp153-154), his explanation why he became a police officer (p36), Narvesen’s passion for the painting of Madonna and Child, kept in his, as Frølich puts it, “wank hole” (p240) and the equation of this painting with Elisabeth Faremo as an object of desire to be possessed by men (p241). There appears to be a special unease with the idea of women preferring other women to men. Elisabeth Faremo is reading poetry by Gunvor Hofmo. Wikipedia describes Hofmo as “often considered one of Norway's most influential modernist poets,” for Dahl she is simply “the deceased lesbian writer” (p122).

The gender conflict is most explicit in a scene of Frølich’s visit to the house of Reidun Vestli, Elisabeth Faremo’s lesbian lover. This is a satisfyingly robust scene. Vestli is described as ugly and Frølich wonders how Elisabeth Faremo could possibly have been drawn to her (p73). Frølich finds the whole female environment in Vestli’s house irritating: “irritation at everything she stood for, the snobbish arrogance, academia, all the mess in this room, all the secrets she had hoarded in this nest of hers.” (p72) “Share the pleasure of something intellectual, my arse!” he shouts at Vestli (p74) This scene illustrates how women and men in The Fourth Man inhabit different worlds and, it seems, the women’s world remains a mystery as well as a source of irritation for the male detective. Later Frølich explains to Gunnarstranda: “This Reidun Vestli sees me as a masculine avenger from the heterosexual world. … The woman cannot connect her relationship with reality.” (p86). Frølich operates in the reality of the criminal investigation and just because Vestli does not share his priorities, she is detached from reality.

Throughout The Fourth Man, all the way to its misleading English title, one can discern the uncomfortable fault line between women and men. This is a serious plot spoiler, but it is worth noting that all female characters with any part to play in the action of the novel are dead by the end of it.

The plot of The Fourth Man is complex; it includes robbery, murder, attempted murder, suicide, art theft, blackmail, arson, grievous bodily harm, fraud, mental illness, identity theft, and breaking and entering. The plausibility of the plot suffers somewhat when in the course of the story two critical clues are found by Frølich in his own flat, where they have been waiting to be discovered from the very start. Unfortunately the plot also relies heavily on coincidence. Elisabeth Faremo happens to walk into the middle of a police raid, where she is tackled by Frølich (p4). This sets the whole story in motion and creates a good point of narrative tension: was their meeting a coincidence or was it calculated? But then several more coincidences follow: Frølich arrives at Elisabeth’s flat at the same time as her brother Jonny (p50); he arrives at the power station in Glomma while Gunnarstranda is there, too (p80), Gunnarstranda bumps into main suspects in the street (p90), Frølich comes across Ramstad on a petrol station (p191). Oslo is clearly a small place; it is also a place where little changes: Frølich is able to intercept businessman Narvesen, because he recalls that in 1998 the man used to have lunch at a regular table at the Theatre Café (p141) and six years later, of course, he still does.

As many other Norwegian crime writers, Dahl is very specific about Oslo’s geography (pp 90, 106, 124, 126, 141, 143, 159 181, 243, 248). As a student Dahl drove a taxi in Oslo, and one can argue that it shows: the routes Frølich takes across Oslo feel like taxi rides (pp190. 207, 249). Also, like Jo Nesbø and Unni Lindell, Dahl cannot resist making a snide remark about the wealthy western part of Oslo: “each drive with its own BMW” (p70).

The quality of writing is uneven. In addition to crude outbursts and Frølich's melodramatic internal monologues, Frølich as well as the narrative are annoyingly hooked on the image of “long bones in the ashes.” After Gunnarstanda first speaks these words (p115), they are repeated endlessly (pp117 twice, 118, 122, 126, 133, 137, 187, 189, 195,196, 240). On the other hand, descriptions of weather and nature are very good (pp78, 88-9, 124).

The Fourth Man is adequate as light reading. As a psychological thriller it backfires: the psychology in the story is shallow, but the psychology revealed in the text is more interesting: why does The Fourth Man have such a problem with women?