Nordic Watchlist speaks to one of the founding fathers of Nordic Noir – Kjell Ola Dahl

One of the founding fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl, was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published twelve novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers (The Oslo Detectives series) featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. Nordic Watchlist had the opportunity to sit down with Kjell (albeit remotely) and discuss, amongst other things, his latest UK release, ‘Little Drummer.’

NW: So Kjell, what can you tell us about Little Drummer?

KJELL: I’m not always the best at selling my books but Little Drummer is one of my favourites from the Oslo Detective series. It’s a book about conflict between the press and the police, about suppression and how rich countries suppress poorer countries, it’s about how aid has failed historically, and how when aid workers leave a country there are those left behind who must continue to live with the consequences.

Story wise, it’s crime fiction as you’d probably guess. It opens with a girl found dead in a car park. The police initially think it’s death by overdose, but it soon becomes clear she’s been murdered and that her murder is linked to various other goings on in the world. I really enjoy the investigation element to the book, the way Gunnarstranda and Frølich uncover new information as it progresses. 

NW: I note that it was first published in 2003, any particular reason why its only just been translated?

KJELL: The order they’ve been translated is a little strange. My previous publisher started in the middle with book four, then worked back from book three to one. Since Orenda took over Karen has released them in order. Unfortunately, that makes them a little out of sync but hopefully it’s not a problem.

At first I was a little afraid that Little Drummer might be too old but having read it again I don’t think it is. The issues are still as relevant now as they were when I wrote it.

NW: There’s a separate storyline that takes place in Kenya. Is that somewhere you’ve been?

KJELL: Yes, it is, a couple of times in fact. The first time was back in the 90’s when I was working as a teacher in Norway. There was an exchange programme with a Kenyan school so I went over and whilst there I started to become interested in the connection between Norway and Kenya.

I then went back to carry out some research as I was really interested in the problems water hyacinth was causing to the eco-system in Lake Victoria; spoiling harbours, preventing fishing and damaging livelihoods. Around Lake Victoria there are startling numbers of deaths and disease and I wanted to highlight those issues. My way of doing that is through writing…but of course I have to kill someone off to begin with!

NW: Where is it you find your inspiration then?

KJELL: Very often through research. I’m a person that needs connection to the real world when I’m writing. If I try and just invent something, it never turns out particularly well! I really enjoy reading history and historical novels so I often find inspiration in them. I’ll spend time studying maps and films and when I find my connection to real world, that’s when I can start to create a story.

NW: How important is the police procedural element to you and where does your knowledge of that come from?

KJELL: Fortunate enough to have a lot of contacts within the police who I can lean on for help or guidance when I need it. That being said, it’s not something I’m as concerned about as I used to be. I now care more for characters and how they react to personal and internal conflict.

I invest a lot on my characters to make them as interesting as possible. For me, when writing crime fiction it’s the story that’s most important. I find police procedurals are often overloaded with technical things connected to the investigation, like DNA, CCTV, phone-evidence etc, which often draws attention away from the psychology and the tension between characters. When I write about police, I know I must use those things, but where possible I try to minimise it. Too much reality can become a bit repetitive and monotonous. 

NW: Are you able to tell us what’s coming next?

KJELL: Yes of course, it’s a historical standalone that takes place during WW2. In 1943 Norway was occupied by Germany but Sweden was not. As a result lots of Norwegians fled to Sweden, especially Stockholm and so there became a big population of Norwegian refugees and officials there. The crime element of the story comes from a courier going between the two countries who is found dead. The Norwegian authorities based in Stockholm want to solve and suspect espionage. It’s a book I’m really proud of and that actually only came out in Norway two months ago. Don Bartlett has started work on the translation so hopefully it will be released in the UK at some point next year.

NW: What was it that made you want to move away from the Oslo Detective series to writing standalones?

KJELL: I suppose it’s the challenge really. The good thing about standalones is they are exactly that. You can invent everything and then you don’t have to worry about what comes next when the book is over. I’m also fascinated by history and I think standalones are a good way to work in interesting historical events to a story. I find the question of why the world has turned out the way it has captivating and to try and find the answer to that you have to read books, papers etc and that is where I often find my stories or have ideas.

As for the Oslo Detective series, I didn’t plan on it being a series. After the first was released I wrote a couple of standalones. There’s actually seven years between the first two because I wanted to explore different ways of writing. I wrote a few books in the third person, some in the first person and then also a thriller. When I came back to the series I felt like after I’d written the second there should be a third and so on. It just happened. The first three also focus more on Gunnarstranda so I then decided I wanted to spend some time developing Frølich.

NW: It must be brilliant to work with Orenda and have the backing of someone like Karen?

KJELL: Oh, it is. I’ve honestly never met a publisher with her energy and the belief she has in her authors is amazing. She’s fantastic.

NW: I’m interested to hear more about your work with Hisham Zaman? How did that come about?

KJELL: He was actually a student of mine. He was a refugee from Iraq and was placed in my school. He was always very keen and motivated to work in film and wanted to be a director. That was difficult because at that time there was no film school in Norway but when one was eventually opened he studied there and started to come to me with questions or for help with scripts and we started to collaborate. He’s a great person and a very talented director. He’s working on a very interesting new film now actually.

NW: What do you think it is about Norway that continues to produce such fantastic crime writers?

KJELL: Good question. It could well be the publishing system. We have very good support from the state as writing books help to keep the Norwegian language alive. Whenever a book is published the state will buy 1,000 copies for libraries which is a great way of supporting new authors. It also gives the publishers a bit of economic security when they publish new talents.

The beautiful city of Oslo – home to many Nordic Noir inspired stories (Photo Credit: Gustav Lundborg)

NW: Do you have a favourite book of those you’ve written? And what about a favourite generally?

KJELL: I find I always tend to like my latest but this time I think I’m right! I think it has a good plot, good characters, good dialogue and a good ending. I always like to find ways to improve my books and I do think I have done that with this one. I also think both Little Drummer and The Courier are two of my better books

Picking a favourite book or author is too difficult. There are so many good stories out there. John le Carré is definitely one of my favourites though. I have always enjoyed his work.

You can head over to Orenda Books to purchase any one of Kjell’s books – just follow the link here:

Interview by Marc Harries