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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Red Handler

Johan Harstad

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To purchase The Red Handler

Title: The Red Handler
Author: Johan Harstad
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 258 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Red Handler - US
The Red Handler - UK
The Red Handler - Canada
Auf frischer Tat - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Open Letter Books
  • Collected Works
  • Annotated Edition
  • Norwegian title: Ferskenen
  • Translated by David Smith

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever bit of work; good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 8/2/2023 Aldo Keel

  From the Reviews:
  • "Auf frischer Tat ist ein anspielungsreicher Roman für den anspruchsvollen Kenner." - Aldo Keel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Red Handler is presented as the collected fiction featuring a character known as 'the Red Handler, private detective', by (the fictional author) Frode Brandeggen (1970-2014), in an edition annotated by: "Brandeggen's German friend and professional annotator, Bruno Aigner". Close to 150 pages of the volume are taken up by the fifteen Red Handler-novels, with another hundred or so pages devoted to endnotes -- 252 of them.
       The Red Handler novels are (obviously) very short -- in contrast to Brandeggen's one other published work of fiction, his 1992 debut, the 2322-page Konglomeratisk pust ('Conglomerativ Breath'), which even the otherwise sympathetic Aigner judges to be: "perfectly unreadable" and whose print run was almost entirely pulped ("The number of copies it sold can be counted on one hand"). An unpublished warm-up to the Red Handler books also clocked in at 433 pages, but then Brandeggen moved to the other extreme, with each of the Red Handler crime novels only running, at most, a few hundred words. Not that Brandeggen didn't put a lot of work into them: Aigner can draw on the: "notes on composition, characters, plot development, ideas for future expansion" that accompany each of the novels -- with, for example, the notes to the four-page novel The Red Handler Stumbles Across It covering 142 pages. But the novels themselves are fiction boiled down to the barest minimum.
       The Red Handler novels are not your typical crime fiction, as, as Aigner explains: "Brandeggen consciously chose to break with the established rules of the detective story, laid down by Van Dine and Knox, e.g., at the end of the 1920s". The crimes this PI looks into don't always involve murder -- and:

Brandeggen also scoffed at Van Dine and Knox's unbending rule that the detective must never solve the crime as a result of blind chance, coincidence, or being at the right place at the right time. On the contrary, this became the Red Handler's modus operandi, given Brandeggen's deep interest in coincidence, the collective unconscious, and synchronicity.
       The way Aigner puts it, in these novels: "The solution comes before the reader has a chance to get bored" -- and, in fact, the (re)solution invariably comes essentially immediately: as Aigner also sums up: "He tells it just like it is. No nonsense". Pared down to the very basics, these 'novels' offer little mystery or suspense; repeatedly, the Red Handler catches criminals in the act -- or even before: in The Red Handler and the Secret Massage Studio he confronts a thief preparing to burgle a house; the thief can sneer: "But I haven't done anything yet. You've got nothing on me" -- forcing and leading the Red Handler to wait until the thief has actually robbed the place ("He smoked a menthol cigarette while the thief went to work"). The sense of inevitability, the characters' actions preördained -- and them not changing course, even when they're aware of the inevitable consequences --, is found in several of the novels: here the thief doesn't abandon his plans but rather does what he always does -- only to, of course, wind up in the Red Handler's waiting hands -- at which point: "'Dammit,' exclaimed the thief, 'you are too good'". As Brandeggen sums up: "That was the Red Handler for you: always a step ahead".
       As Aigner puts it in an endnote about one story's turn, with Brandeggenian succinctness: "Setup. Payoff. Perfect", and a similar -- and similarly quick -- sequence of events not so much unfolding but being presented as faits accomplis is common to practically all fifteen works. Only the final one, The Red Handler Lands in Trouble with the Authorities, consisting of just six words, appears fragmentary, unfinished -- with Aigner considering whether it truly is or can be read as a complete novel, getting to the point even more quickly than in the other ones ("without making us get through hundreds of pages of inessential detail first").
       The Red Handler micro-novels don't offer many of the usual satisfactions of the genre, but Harstad does present an interesting variety of scenarios -- hardly realistic (certainly not in the way they play out) but often clever spins on crime and criminal investigation (not least with The Red Handler and the Unsolvable Mystery of the Burmese Cat, where a quantum physicist seems to have outwitted the Red Handler, only to find himself hoisted (or not) by his own petard).
       Of course, there's more to The Red Handler than just the Brandeggen novels: as in Nabokov's Pale Fire, the other half of the novel, the annotations, is what makes the whole. In these endnotes, Aigner's relates much of Brandeggen's writing to the author, making for a fuller picture of the man behind the fiction, as well as offering commentary -- ranging from the simplest ("True enough") to the much more extensive and detailed -- as well as some interpretation. Eventually, Aigner also gets to himself: "The time has come for me to step forth and make an appearance in my own person", and readers learn about his annotation work -- the Red Handler-collection being the 444th (and last) book he handles -- and, for example, what (many) newspapers he subscribes to.
       It makes for an amusing and very quirky literary game, poking gentle fun at the mystery genre but also exploring the role of the reader in myriad ways, both directly as well as via the character/annotator Aigner. The back and forth paging, between text and endnotes, is of course somewhat cumbersome, but just one more way The Red Handler is a very different kind of reading experience from the usual one. It's well done, and good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 April 2024

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The Red Handler: Reviews: Other books by Johan Harstad interest under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Johan Harstad was born in 1979.

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© 2024 the complete review

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