PAINKILLER by Asle Skredderberget

This novel certainly breaks the mould of Scandinavian crime fiction. Here, the detective hero is not a dysfunctional drunk or antisocial isolate, but an urbane and sophisticated, smart and cosmopolitan character, equally at ease on the streets of Oslo, the blocks of New York, and the cobbled byways of Rome. Milo Cavalli, product of a Norwegian father and Italian mother, with a wealthy family background, was introduced to readers of Norwegian crime fiction in Skredderberget’s debut novel, Soft as Metal in 2010, short-listed for the Riverton Prize, Norway’s Golden Gun. Having renounced a career in the heady world of high finance to join the police financial crime unit, he now investigates a murder that intersects the murky realms of international big business and financial interests, as well as the impact of their dealings on human casualties.

Skredderberget weaves the various threads of the intricate plot with great assurance, creating a gripping atmosphere throughout the novel in addition to posing a number of thorny questions about the morality and social consequences of international business practice. He also fills out the background of his central character, Milo Cavalli, and the family secrets revealed in the course of the novel provide a fascinating backdrop to the murder mystery, seamlessly entwined as they are with the various strands of the plot.

The novel opens with a description of the sinking of an Italian naval cruiser, which will turn out to have significance for a number of characters later in the story. A second introductory section takes us to Rome, where we witness the mysterious killing of a woman in her hotel room. These two incidents set the scene for the narrative to follow, the investigation of the murder and twists and turns of the plot taking Milo Cavalli to a number of locations and perilous situations in his quest for answers. The first chapter introduces Cavalli, working in Oslo on an investigation of an insider trader, Reeza Hamid, part of the notorious Centre Gang with fingers in several pies in the underworld of the Norwegian capital. He has played a central role in the investigation, but has not been included in the team ready to make the arrest. However, circumstances conspire to land him on the scene, where we are shown Cavalli as an effective man of action as well as a clever and incisive investigator: he intervenes in spectacular fashion to save the day when police colleagues bungle the arrest attempt.

After months of intense investigative work on Hamid’s financial crimes, Cavalli is looking forward to a more relaxing time after the arrest, but instead is contacted by his colleague Sørensen, chief homicide investigator, who appeals for his help with the murder of a Norwegian citizen in Rome. He needs an officer to travel to Italy to liaise with the Italian police and negotiate the intricacies of Italian bureaucracy in order to release the body for repatriation to Norway. Cavalli, a fluent Italian speaker, is the ideal candidate for this task, and he jets off to Rome where he is able, despite the weekend timing, to strike up a warm relationship with his counterpart in the Italian police, Commissario Benedetti, and to short-circuit the complex procedures allowing the coffin to be transported to Norway. The victim is Ingrid Tollefsen, aged thirty, a medical research scientist at the Oslo branch of an American pharmaceutical company, Forum Healthcare, who had been in Rome to attend a conference. Intriguingly, the woman’s schoolboy brother had been murdered in Oslo only a couple of years earlier – both Sørensen and Cavalli puzzle over whether there is any connection between the two incidents.

Two personal episodes intrude at this early point – a phone call from Cavalli’s father inviting him to dinner to meet a female friend, and an email from his cousin in Milan concerning contact received from a legal firm in New York about a mysterious inheritance. It is obvious that Cavalli’s relationship with his widowed father is strained, and he is reluctant to meet up with him, assuming that the female friend is a potential stepmother. These issues are put on the backburner while he deals with his Italian assignment. Skredderberget demonstrates his close affinity to Italy in his detailed descriptions of Rome, and this location also provides an opportunity for reminiscences about Cavalli’s deceased Italian mother, with whom he clearly had a close relationship. We also meet his Italian girlfriend, Theresa, an ambivalent long- distance romance, helping to establish his credentials as something of a Casanova, albeit one with a conscience. An ingenious feature of the novel is the author’s use of the confessional box in church, where Cavalli reveals his innermost feelings and crises of conscience in conversations with his priest – an unusual but effective literary device.

In Rome too, Cavalli’s doggedness and attention to detail lead to the discovery of a vital clue – before her death, Ingrid had thrown a box of pills, containing a hurriedly scribbled note, from the window into the yard below. The pills are for diabetes control, but the message is almost illegible and means nothing to the investigators.

Gradually the plot unfurls – reinvestigation of Ingrid Tollefsen’s brother’s murder leads to evidence of illegal pushing of anabolic steroids, produced by the company she worked for, as well as uncovering a witness, Oriana, who had not come forward at the time because of her status as an illegal immigrant. The Centre Gang is involved, so the knowledge Cavalli gleaned from his earlier investigation into financial crimes proves crucial. It also turns out that Ingrid had been working on top-secret projects for the company, but their representatives are unwilling to provide details to the police investigation, citing confidentiality and various complications caused by being governed by US rather than Norwegian law. All evidence of Ingrid’s current work projects vanished from her hotel room at the time of her death, but it turns out that Ingrid had paid a visit to New York for a meeting with her former tutor and mentor, Chiara Salvatore, immediately prior to her trip to Rome. Cavalli’s personal business with the New York legal firm offers him an opportunity to delve deeper into Ingrid’s background and professional interests by visiting Salvatore – and this expedition also leads to two further romantic entanglements, showing that Cavalli is certainly not yet ready to settle down with Italian Theresa. The personal business discloses the information that Cavalli’s long-deceased grandfather had owned a New York apartment in which he had installed his mistress, who has recently died. The highly desirable apartment, overlooking Central Park, has now been bequeathed to Cavalli and his cousin.

In Oslo, Cavalli finally meets up with his father, only to discover the mysterious woman is not a prospective stepmother, but a secret half-sister, born out of wedlock to his father’s mistress. Though stunned by the news, Cavalli soon makes friends with his sister, and it is clear to the reader that he has more in common with his Italian grandfather and Norwegian father than he is willing to acknowledge. He has a number of close shaves in his encounters with the Centre Gang in Oslo, and a further twist in the plot arrives with the kidnapping of Oriana’s young sister, Olena.

The murder investigation is now ongoing in three different locations – Oslo, Rome and New York. The enquiries reveal that Ingrid, filled with a sense of guilt, had been investigating her brother’s murder, and had also been concerned enough about developments at Forum Healthcare to arrange a meeting with their Chief Compliance Officer. It seems her murder is connected to the fact that she was about to blow the whistle on the pharmaceutical firm’s activities. In Oslo, interviews with Oriana unveil sloppy and heartless practice at the Immigration Appeals Board, and Cavalli discloses a soft and sympathetic side to his character, as well as his social conscience, by assisting her financially and financing her legal battle to remain in Norway.

The tension mounts, and the various strands of the plot are cleverly woven together, including the initial glimpse of the sinking of the military cruiser, and the personal facets of Cavalli’s life and background. The dénouement is imaginatively contrived as the questionable practices of international pharmaceutical companies are brought into strong focus in a highly public arena – indeed Skredderberget emphasises the factual basis for his novel in the appendix, containing documentary evidence and sources for his story.

The novel is fluently written, filled with carefully controlled suspense, and the author demonstrates masterly command of his narrative with all its complexity. He is particularly successful in conjuring the atmosphere of the different capital cities in which the novel is situated, and in the creation of the central character, Milo Cavalli, engagingly different from run-of-the-mill detectives, with obvious appeal to both sexes in his readership, a total change from the morose investigator of so much contemporary crime fiction. While his humanitarianism reminds us of Bergen social- worker-turned-detective Varg Veum, there is much to suggest the refinement of Camilleri’s Montalbano and elegance of Michael Dibden’s Aurelio Zen. Even a hint of Ian Fleming’s James Bond! Where he does sit squarely in the frame of Nordic Noir is through his clear sense of injustice, his philanthropy, and the critique of society firmly embedded in the narrative. The cinematic qualities of this novel, with its huge international canvas and juxtaposition of our jet-setting protagonist with lowlife gangsters and immigrants subsisting under the radar, make it a sure-fire candidate for film status, and the broad appeal of Milo Cavalli, with his beguiling combination of worldliness, benevolence and Catholic guilt, ensures enormous success with the reading public. Bravissimo, Skredderberget – this is a riveting, innovative novel, imaginatively and painstakingly written: Milo Cavalli is a new kind of globetrotting Scandinavian hero who brings crime fiction into entirely new territory.

Anne Bruce, January 2013.