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The Assistant's Kjella Ola Dahl on discovering a criminal family past

Author Kjella Ola Dahl spent time searching for his protagonist, it turned out the man he was looking for was his bootlegging great uncle.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know my father’s family very well. My father was a child when his father died and he never spoke much about his side of the family. And I never took the opportunity to ask when I had the chance.

My father died long before I really wanted to know these things, so I had to research elsewhere. All I knew was that my grandfather was born into a very poor family, and that they lived in a small house in a mining community not far from where I live today. They were five brothers and two sisters. Their father was a miner and their mother was the midwife in this little village.

One of the mysteries of my grandfather is that before he was 30 he had become a rich man, owning his own retail store and a big townhouse in Oslo. My research told me that as a child he was gifted and intelligent. His primary school teacher and some wealthy benefactors helped him get an education in trade and business. Only one of his brothers followed their father’s footsteps and became a miner. Two brothers received help and money from my grandfather to start up their own retail stores. I also could follow the stories of the sisters fairly well. But I had trouble finding the story of the fourth brother, my great uncle Lars.

I knew that he had started a bus company in 1930, but he was 40 at the time. Before that there was not much to find. On the other hand, I still live in his home village and I had heard some fantastical rumours about him having been a criminal. One story said he had escaped the police by driving his lorry across a lake on a railway bridge. One other story was about a shootout in the roaring twenties, involving gangsters and police. And there were several stories of Lars and his speedboat in the Oslo Fjord during the twenties. It seemed that if he had been a criminal and had owned a speedboat, he probably had been working during the prohibition, which lasted in Norway from 1916 to 1927.

I had also heard that his brothers secretly sold illegal hooch in their shops during that time. I dug deeper and found that Lars had lived in Oslo in the twenties. He received a driver’s licence at early age and worked as a lorry driver and a bus driver. And then, there it was – in a national newspaper from 1923, I found the story of a smuggler who escaped the police by driving his lorry across a railway bridge over a lake. I knew I was close. I contacted the National Archives to see if my great uncle had been imprisoned. And there was the match.

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The Assistant by Kjella Ola Dahl, translated by Dan Bartlett, is out now (Orenda, £8.99) Image: Courtesy of PR

My great uncle had been involved in several smuggling cases, including one of the most famous cases throughout prohibition, that captivated the newspapers at the time. A rich man with his own transport company in Oslo was prosecuted for smuggling. He lived in a villa close to the sea, outside Oslo. The police had watched his house for weeks. When fishermen from several boats had unloaded lots of hooch in the garden of his house, the police took action. After a lot of shooting, the owner of the house and some of his employees escaped. Only one of his employees was arrested – his driver, who was my great uncle. The fact that this rich and respectable businessman escaped a shootout – and then went on the run from the police for several days, made the case famous! My great uncle was the police’s main witness in the lawsuit against the gangster, but he never showed up in the courthouse. Therefore, his boss was never convicted.

This rich man stopped smuggling afterwards, and later became an even more famous businessman. My great uncle on the other hand, continued smuggling by himself. He had his own speedboat, sailing out the Oslo Fjord to German ships in international waters buying liquor in cans, then sailing back to Oslo escaping police and customs with his fast speedboat. A couple of years later he was arrested – twice. The first time, customs officials did not find any hooch in the boat, and he was set free. The second time however, he had lots of liquor with him. In court, he lost his boat and was sent to prison. After serving time, he stopped smuggling, settled down and started his own bus company, operating a line between Oslo and the village where he grew up.

I had previously been researching Norwegian stevedores operating against German and Italian ships during the Spanish Civil War, and I had started writing a novel with this theme, but I couldn’t clearly see my protagonist. I knew he was a sailor with a criminal past. And then, whilst researching my great uncle, there he was!

The Assistant by Kjella Ola Dahl, translated by Dan Bartlett, is out now (Orenda,£8.99)

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