Hans Olav Lahlum: historian, organiser, novelist

by Johannes Fischer
8/31/2015 – The Norwegian Hans Olav Lahlum is a historian who published political biographies but also a series of successful and critically acclaimed crime novels. He is also a passionate chess player, organiser, and television commentator. In a detailed interview he talks about his chess career, crime writing and reveals why he loves to do the things he does.

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Hans Olav Lahlum at the Chess Olympiad in Tromsø (Photo: André Schulz)

Dear Hans Olav Lahlum, Wikipedia lists you as „historian, crime writer, chess player and organizer, and politician“. Which of these roles is the most important to you?

All of these roles are important parts of my life, and I find it difficult to rank them. I used to say that I hope to be remembered first as a friend, and second as a writer. I feel very privileged that I can live comfortably by having made my hobbies my work and doing the things I enjoy most in life. Still, I feel even more privileged to have so many friends, within and outside of the chess community.   

Is there a role Wikipedia does not mention?

Maybe journalist and/or television personality should be included. I started to write a weekly chess column in the local newspaper when I was 16, and in recent years I have published articles in many newspapers and magazines. I did interviews and wrote articles about other sports for the largest Norwegian newspaper, and continue to do so for the blog of a close friend.

In 2006 I was also editor-in-chief of the Norwegian Chess Magazine, but then turned to writing books fulltime. Last year, I was doing a lot of work for television. I commented the World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Vishy, and a number of chess tournaments. I also hosted a series of historical programs and was a guest in various other programs.

Commentating the Norway Chess tournament in Norwegian TV (Photo TV2)

Let’s talk about crime. Three of your novels (The Human Flies, Satellite People, and Catalyst Killing) are available in English. The heroes of these novels are the young police inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen, called “K2”, and Patricia Louise Borchmann, a young girl with a brilliant mind who after an accident is confined to a wheelchair. The inspector regularly visits her to report about his cases and basically she is the one who solves the intricate crimes. What inspired you to these characters?

In Norwegian I am actually about to release the seventh installment of the K2/Patricia Louise Borchmann series … But, anyway, after completing my history studies at the University of Oslo, I first spent some years to write books about Norwegian and US-American political history. Then, one day in December 2008, I was in Oslo to help a student with her thesis about Norwegian women who were part of the resistance movement during World War II. On the night train back to my home town Gjøvik, it suddenly struck me how different the life of these women could have been after the war, if they had been a little less lucky in critical situations during the war. Even if they had survived the war without physical injuries. When leaving the train I had a complete plan for my first novel The Human Flies. Two years later, in autumn 2010, it was published.

The Sunday Times was enthusiastic about Lahlum's debut as a crime writer and wrote: "Brillinat.
Locked-room mysteries used to be a staple of golden-age crime fiction. Now ... Hans Olav Lahlum has revived the form."

To some extent Patricia’s nature and intelligence is inspired by WIM Katrine Tjølsen, a close friend of mine who was born in 1993 and is the most talented female Norwegian chess player. But Katrine certainly is much more likeable than Patricia. However, my main inspiration for the character of Patricia was one of my male students of history. He is extremely intelligent and can be extremely sarcastic but weighs only 19 kg and thus is physically much more handicapped than Patricia. Readers who consider the fictional Patricia too extreme to be true should meet him…

Kolbjørn Kristiansen, however, is a practical man who is able to do many things I cannot do – for instance, driving a car. Still, he is a man about my age and we have more similarities than it appears. For a start, both of us are considered much more intelligent than we actually are…

The main characters of your novels resemble famous literary detectives, e.g. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and Rex Stouts Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. Did these detectives inspire you?

From a literary perspective, my detective duo is a modern version of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Kolbjørn is Dr Watson: A honest and rather conventional practical man, telling the story to the readers and being open-minded about what he sees and understands. The reader will often understand more than he does. Patricia is Sherlock Holmes: A much more intelligent but also much more introverted mastermind, with the habit of asking mysterious questions and hiding her cards until she is sure her theories are correct.

Crime writer Hans Olav Lahlum (Picture: Panmacmillan)

Her ability to point out moves and variations others cannot see is crucial in this series. Most readers will have to stretch their minds to follow or to compete with her. Obviously, there are also similarities to Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot. I dedicated my second novel to Agatha Christie and obviously I am inspired by her work. Conan Doyle inspired the detective duo of my novels, Agatha Christie the plots, and Belgian legend Georges Simenon the atmosphere and psychology of the novels.

Agatha Christie 1925 (Photo: Wikipedia)

However, when publishing my first novel I had never read any of the Nero Wolfe stories, but later I enjoyed them. Another legendary American writer from the golden era of crime writing, Ross MacDonald, also inspired some plots.

A lot of modern crime lovers consider these writers and their way of writing a bit old-fashioned. An intricate puzzle, a limited number of suspects, a brilliant mind that sees what others miss, the idea that the signs the world presents are reliable, and that the detective with her powers of deduction will solve even the most complicated crime. In a world that seems increasingly complicated and unreliable this might indeed seem to be outdated. What attracts you to such characters and such novels?

First, the writers mentioned above are all truly great crime writers. If they published today (with some updates) they would still belong to best crime writers of the world even if the competition is much harder today. That is similar to some of the great chess geniuses from the past. In fact, the similarities between Agatha Christie and Jose Raul Capablanca are underrated.

Another problem is that today the technicalities of a police investigation are so much more advanced that they leave less room for human intelligence and creativity. Because of this I consider the time between 1918 and 1980 to be a much better context for a classical and intellectual crime novel. This long period includes several shorter periods which are extremely interesting. So far I have written about one of these periods, the time from 1968 to 1973.

"A continually fascinating novel which not only holds true to the spirit of Agatha Christie
but also has a 21st century take on themes and subjects..." Waterford Today
"Ingenious ... A Scandinavian crime novel with a difference." Laura Wilson Guardian

But probably I will soon go further back in time and test another period. I find it fascinating that technology changes rapidly but that we have the same basic human questions people had 100 years ago. To quote the 1928 Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset: “Human hearts never changed at all, for all those years”.

The way your heroine Patricia solves the crimes evokes the image of a chess game: the intellect prevails, there is the joy of solving complicated puzzles and the pleasure of solving complicated intellectual tasks. Did you think of chess when writing?

Actually, I found that my chess experiences were more helpful when writing history than when writing novels. For example, in my book about British prime ministers I understood the Second World War and Winston Churchill better when I analyzed the war in chess terms.

In my first novel police inspector Kolbjørn remarks that by hindsight the investigation can be understood as a chess game between Patricia and the murderer. One reviewer took a different perspective and claimed that throughout the novel I played chess with my readers.

In my most recent novel Patricia remarks that she prefers chess to card games because in chess she can see the whole position and does not have to worry about unknown factors and luck. The series now reached the autumn of 1972 and it is likely that Patricia’s interest for chess will deepen a bit in the next novel… 

The Human Flies and Satellite People both are set at the end of the sixties and have historical topics, mainly the role of Norwegian resistance to the occupation of Norway during the Second World War. Did you choose this part of Norwegian history as setting for your crime novels because you also are interested in this period as a historian?

Basically I am always a historian, even if I play chess or write novels. My aim is to write books that are exciting crime mysteries and interesting historical novels at the same time. However, you have to find a balance, and I know historians who destroyed promising material by putting too much history into their novels.

The period from 1968 to 1973 was a very important period of change in Norway and in other countries. Choosing this period as setting of my novels allows me to use stories from the Second World War without having to make the surviving characters 80 or above. The Second World War occupies a special position in Norwegian history and literature and it is after all, the only time we experienced war and occupation after the Napoleon wars. When my novels were translated I understood much better what the Second World War did to many countries. I had hoped that my novels would be translated into Danish and English, but the translation into Korean was completely unexpected. However, one of the main topics of the novel is extremely relevant for South Korea today – how the shadows of the war darkened the lives of many people for decades.

Hans Olav Lahlums third novel in the K2/Patricia Borchmann series

What attracts you to writing in general and writing novels in particular?

I was a reading child, enjoying historical biographies since I was eight. It all started with a basic interest for human beings and their life stories. Writing about people and aspects of their life has been natural for me since I was a teenager. Although interested in and sometimes fascinated by language questions, I have always considered language a work tool and not a final goal.

Was it difficult to switch from writing history books to crime writing?

Not really, but remember that I first wrote historical biographies and then historical crime. Nowadays the gap between history and fiction is not as wide as it was 30 or 50 years ago. Obviously there are still important differences. For better or worse, in a history book your characters and the plot are from real life, you tell a true story. Writing a history book requires more research and less creativity than writing a novel.

Do you have any plans to write a chess book?

I am unlikely to write a chess novel. But with all my experience as a chess trainer for young players, I will probably write some kind of chess book sooner or later. Together with a chessfriend and it will be a book for beginners and tournament players. But for the next two years my schedule is too packed with writing other books or commenting chess on television.

What attracts you to the game?

I am interested in arts, sports and science. Chess borders on all three. This results in so much strategic and tactical possibilities on the 64 squares… I also enjoy the history and the pedagogy of chess very much. I find it truly fascinating that I can still learn from a game that was played several hundred years ago.

Your crime writing seems to have been inspired by some of the great crime writers of the past. But are there any novels about chess that you like and favor?

Strangely, although I love chess and I love novels, I very rarely enjoy chess novels. Stefan Zweig wrote a short and good one named Schachnovelle (The Royal Game) during the Second World War. Among recent crime writers I can recommend a book by Arnaldur Indriðason. It was published in 2011 with the Icelandic title Einvígið and in Norway it appeared as Tvekampen meaning The Duel. The book was translated into French and German, but there seems to be no English translation yet. It is an interesting book which is set in Reykjavik 1972 and has the Fischer-Spassky match as background. I recommend Arnaldur Indriðason's chess novel more because he is a great writer than because I consider this is one of his best novels. (It is probably among the weaker, but still very good as he is great!) And after helping a Norwegian publisher to find a qualified translator, I was happily surprised to find out that David Klass’ Grandmaster is a very funny and very interesting chess thriller.

Cover of David Klass: Grandmaster

You are a chess player and an organizer. Tell us something about your chess career.

Chess somehow was an unlucky love story from my childhood years. I loved to study and I loved to play chess but I lived in the countryside far away from any tournaments and clubs, at a time when there was no internet. I was 16 years old and had a playing strength below 1600 when I entered a chess club for the first time.

The next years I played and trained a lot and when I was 19 a had reached a level of about 2200. Then, however, I did not improve my rating much and progress definitely stopped when I started to study at university. Today I understand more about chess and play better moves than I did with 19. But so do the other players and thus my Elo-rating remains stable around 2200 while I play 10 to 20 tournament games a year.

My best results were second place in a weak open Norwegian Championship in 1998 and tenth place in the Norwegian Championship 2001. In 2001 I actually was leading with 3.5/4 after some lucky wins, but then the other players noticed and soon brought me back to earth. In the second half I scored 0.5/5.

I was also part of team that won the Norwegian Championship in 2006, and this is a highlight I like to remember. I have one IM-norm in correspondence chess, but it is very unlikely that I will ever win that title as I still try to play without too many computer programs and databases. With more training and more tournaments I could probably raise my Elo-rating in Over-the-Board to a level of 2300 within the next two to three years but I doubt if I ever could have reached 2400 Elo. I am basically too much of a chess scientist to succeed as a chess sportsman. I am too careful and I am too satisfied with a well played game even if I do not win. I also started a bit too late and as someone who has never been fond of mathematics I do not have the necessary talent for the calculation part of the game.

Do you have chess idols?

I might be impressed by some players who are still alive and whom I have met, and I might be impressed by historical players but I try not to idolize them. Being imperfect seems to be a part of human nature, at the chess board and elsewhere. But if we are talking about favorite players and not idols, nowadays it is impossible for a Norwegian chess enthusiast not to mention Magnus Carlsen. I find it even more impressive that Magnus in this computer era could become world champion by staying true to his creative style and ideas.

My first favorite in chess was Paul Keres and I still think that he played very interesting chess and had a fascinating life. The same goes for Alexander Alekhine and several other masters from his era.

Paul Keres - a role model for many chess players.

You have also been an organizer of chess events for some time. How did this come about?

I believe that if you receive a lot from a community you should give something back when you are able to. Beside I much appreciated my more ambitious chessfriends, and continued to enjoy chess while losing my personal ambitions as a player. I became tournament director for the Norwegian youth federation at age 18, and for the next eight years spent much time to organize junior tournaments in Norway. Then a crisis hit international tournaments in Norway, as our legendary organizer Arnold Eikrem died much too early in 1996. The Gausdal tournaments had been on the track since 1970, but there was a serious danger this great tournament tradition would die with Arnold. Everyone said “too bad” and no one really did anything about this, until I together with IM Bjarke Sahl revived Gausdal around 1999-2001. As Bjarke for family and work reasons had to quit, I continued alone until 2008. The Gausdal tradition unfortunately died as the hotel first quitted chess and then was closed down. But new opportunities arose and a number of hotels showed interest to host the event.

For some years I organized an international tournament in Oslo every year and now I have taken over the Fagernes tournaments. I plan two more GM tournaments for the New Year holiday 2015-16 and the Easter holiday 2016. Later we will see what work and personal life allow me.

All this time I have been personally responsible for covering the expenses of the tournaments. First, when I was still living on a student loan, this was an unpleasant situation. Fortunately, I have a good income from my books and I can afford to cover a deficit of a few thousand Euros – should that be necessary. Sometimes it is. For instance, at the Oslo Chess International one just could not balance expenses with the money coming in. Finally, I understood the hint and stopped organizing the tournament.

Hans Olav Lahlum playing against young Magnus Carlsen.
The game ended in a draw.

As an organizer, what do you think about Magnus Carlsen’s recent proposal to change the mode of the World Championship cycle?

First: In view of the history of some former World Champions and their demands for unfair privileges, I am proud that today we have a Norwegian World Champion who suggests to remove all of his own privileges. But second: In May, Magnus and I had a short discussion about this subject on Norwegian television, and as much as I can admire his view, I still disagree with his conclusion. Less because of the long history and great tradition of World Championship matches, but more because I still consider a final to be the best way to get a World Champion who deserves the title.

Obviously winning a knock out-tournament is always a great performance. But in view of the generally high level of chess and the nature of the game, surprising results in short matches between top 200 players are much more common in chess than in most other sports. In a knock-out luck plays a much larger role and being a good rapid- or blitz player is very important. If 64 or 128 players start in a knock-out tournament with two-game matches you might easily get a winner who is not part of the top 20.

I call this "the cycling concept" because in cycling almost any athlete who is part of the top 200 can win a race while the favorites are eliminated by accidents etc. Consequently you need a much longer tour to make sure the best wins.

I have never enjoyed to watch the cycling World Championship, even when we had a Norwegian winner, because I have always thought that the format fails to find out who the world’s best cyclist is.

In fact, the knock out format is by no means a new idea. It is an old idea which was tested out 10 to 15 years ago and there were good reasons to abandon it. True enough, the astonishing Anand once succeeded to win even in this format, but from the four World Champions who won the title in this format he was the only top-ten player. Through the knock-out format the title of World Champion which historically carried a lot of weight lost status and legitimacy. Some top tournaments faced the dilemma that they could not invite the World Champion without lowering the Elo-average too much.

Magnus Carlsen after winning the World Championship match
against Vishy Anand in Chennai 2013 and becoming the
16th World Champion in the history of chess.

Moreover, I think Magnus’ premise that this will increase the chances for anyone – except the current World Champion – is doubtful. The chances for any player who belongs to the top five to first win a qualification tournament with eight players and then become World Champion by winning a match against the reigning World Champion are probably better than winning a knock-out tournament with 64 or 128 players.

For the players who occupy places 6 to 10 on the rating-list things might be similar though this might vary depending on style, rapid chess strength etc. The main difference is that players who are not part of the top ten or top twenty will have much better chances to win the World Championship title than nowadays. I do not consider this to be an improvement and thus I disagree with Magnus' conclusion.

I also enjoy the duel character of chess and thus I much prefer a match. In fact, among Norwegian television viewers matches have been more successful than tournaments. So far, interest for the World Cup knock-out tournament has been limited.

Having said, the question which privileges the World Champion enjoys is important and we should have a debate about this and the World Championship concept in general. For me, a good alternative to the current concept would be a tournament in which three challengers plus the defending World Champion play a round robin tournament over twelve. Thus, the four participants would each play four games against each other. Such a format would reduce the privileges of the defending champion and one could take care that one or even two of the challengers could qualify via a knock-out tournament. We would lose some of the duel moments, but still get an undisputed World Champion. In a tournament, in which players from various nations can take part, in which more games are played, and in which the pressure to win games is higher than in a match between two players.


(Part two will follow soon...)

Note: From 27. December 2015 to 3rd January Hans Olav Lahlum organizes a tournament in Fagernes, Norway. The tournament is sponsored by the Norwegian TV station TV2.

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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