Translated by Alison McCullough — Rikke and Jørgen are lovers. They are also neighbors, which makes for a perfectly comfortable and convenient arrangement. That is, until Jørgen is discovered in his study with his throat slit. Not only might their relationship be exposed, but Rikke was in Jørgen’s flat during the time he was killed, making her the perfect suspect. Should she keep their secret or come clean? In her second novel, Norwegian crime author Helene Flood uses her background in psychology and evokes a nerve-wracking exploration of one woman’s moral quandary wrapped in the tried-and-true crime fiction trope of the closed circle murder mystery.
Most of the story takes place in a small block of flats, built in the 1950s in the Tåsen neighborhood of Oslo. Four families go about their daily routines in a quiet neighborhood where nothing out of the ordinary occurs. Not usually, anyway…
Rikke Prytz is our narrator. She works at a research center studying consumer behavior in relation to climate change and sustainable consumption. She’s been with her husband Åsmund since high school. They’re perfectly content and Rikke had no reason to start cheating on him – she loves him. But part of her feels she missed out on the wild years experienced by women who married later in life.
Jørgen, a well-travelled journalist, personifies this thrill. She feels suspended in time with him, free of the monotony of life and the inevitable progression of marrying, having children, caring for them and eventually growing old. Åsmund is everything Jørgen isn’t: a kind, trusting and dependable guy who is not as well-read or opinionated as Jørgen. Her husband is a man so ordinary that Rikke felt his grayness was starting to rub off on her. But excitement comes at a price.
Jørgen’s wife, Merete, frequently leaves him alone on weekends when he has to work, taking their teenage daughter with her. This provides Rikke with the ideal opportunity to sneak up to Jørgen’s apartment. The lovers planned to meet there the weekend before his body is discovered, but Jørgen hasn’t been responding to Rikke’s messages.
Unable to resist the temptation, she enters the apartment but no one answers when she calls his name. Rikke quickly leaves, knowing she’s taking a risk just being there. However, on the landing, she runs into Saman, their neighbor, and is forced to fabricate an explanation of what she’s doing. This chance encounter will come back to haunt her.
As the investigation into Jørgen’s murder progresses, it becomes clear that the perpetrator either had the security code or was let in. They’re likely to be a resident and Flood ramps up the suspense here, slowly building the tension for a thoroughly claustrophobic atmosphere. Could the killer be their neighbor, Svein? Jørgen and his colleague Rebekka were working on a news story about temping agencies that are a front for slave contracts, money laundering and corruption and Svein runs a temping agency.
Rikke is at odds with herself throughout the investigation, weighing the pros and cons of disclosing her affair with Jørgen to the police. Her marriage is on the line and she worries that her teenage daughter, Emma, is aware of the affair. Rikke is suspicious when Emma becomes hostile and hides her social media accounts from her. She realises that if the affair becomes public it will be framed as infidelity and everything will be reduced to sex. Rikke must make a decision at some point.
In parallel, someone is killing cats in the neighborhood and Flood adds a second creepy mystery to her novel. The mundanity of everyday school runs and the chatter of nosy moms shift to these heinous killings, adding to the discomfort. Is the killer attempting to send a message, or is evil prank purely coincidental?
The Lover is a slow burn suspense novel about a love affair and its consequences, but it also highlights how secrets can have disastrous consequences. Much like with her first novel, The Therapist, Flood takes time to explore the psychology of her characters and their behaviour. Her background as a psychologist comes to the fore. You might find yourself immersed so deeply into Rikke’s life and thoughts that finding out who the murderer is beginning to feel unimportant. The focus is on whether Rikke will be caught out. When the identity of the killer is revealed it almost feels like an afterthought.
The Lover is predominantly character-driven and might require patience from readers who prefer a faster pace. However, it’s perfect for anyone wanting to submerge themselves in a domestic noir story with persistent tension and a cast of dubious characters.
Also see The Therapist by Helene Flood, or The Creak on the Stairs by Eva Björg Aegisdóttir.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars