Today, March 29, is the 56th birthday of one of my favourite mystery writers: Jo Nesbø. This Norwegian writer is probably best known for his series of crime novels featuring Inspector Harry Hole. The series follows a tough detective whose investigations may take him from Oslo to Australia to the Congo Republic. Hole takes on seemingly unconnected cases, sometimes found to involve serial killers, bank robbers, gangsters or the establishment, but also spends a significant amount of time battling alcoholism and his own demons.
The 10 books in the series are
The Devil's Star
I’ve read all ten books and would certainly recommend the series. I actually started with the third book, The Redbreast, which was the first to be translated into English; the first and second books were actually translated last.
I’m featuring my reviews of the first and last book in the series.
Review of The Bat
This is the first novel of the Harry Hole series but it was passed over for translation until now; in English the first book to appear was actually the third one.
The death of Inger Holter, a young Norwegian, results in Harry being sent to Sydney, Australia. The Head of the Crime Squad clarifies Harry’s role: “’What you’re gonna do is watch carefully while we haul the bastard in . . . ‘” (9), but Harry, along with his Aboriginal partner, Andrew Kensington, soon becomes much more deeply involved. A series of unsolved murders is uncovered and it is obvious that a serial killer is involved. It also becomes clear that Andrew seems to know more than he is willing to reveal directly. Early on, Andrew narrates the Aboriginal creation story and Harry comments on its parallels with the Biblical version, “’Despite all the differences, sooner or later, we still come up with the same answers’” and Andrew repeats, “’Let’s hope so’” (53). Much of the time Harry seems to have to find the answers Andrew has already reached.
The plot is mediocre. There are the requisite number of red herrings and twists and turns, but sometimes the story is far-fetched. Andrew’s reticence to divulge what he knows, except through enigmatic fables, is not totally convincing. Furthermore, the ending is peculiar, especially the location of the final confrontation with the killer; no explanation is ever given for his choice of this place as a hideout.
What I enjoyed about the book is learning about Harry’s background. The reader learns about the origins of Harry’s tortured psyche. In subsequent books, we see the depressive alcoholic who is tormented by the past, but explanations for his behaviour are sketchy. As well, in the subsequent books, allusions are made to Harry’s Australian adventure and now we can understand why it haunts him.
What also comes across very strongly is Nesbo’s sympathy for the Aborigines. Much of their mythology and the history of their mistreatment are woven into the narrative, albeit sometimes rather heavy-handedly.
This book won the Glass Award for best Scandinavian crime fiction, but I found it weaker than the other thrillers in the series, understandably since it is the author’s debut. Perhaps it is just as well that it was not the book that introduced Harry Hole to the English readers of the world. If I had read it first, I might very well have skipped the rest, and that would indeed have been my loss.
Review of Police
This is a very difficult book to review without spoilers, but I will endeavor to do so. First of all, it must be mentioned that this book is a follow-up to Phantom and readers would be strongly advised to read it first as Police continues the plot without detailed explanation.
Police officers are being gruesomely murdered at the scenes of unsolved murder cases which they helped investigate. After the shocking ending of Phantom, readers are not surprised that Harry Hole is unable to assist in solving the deaths of former colleagues (though a complete explanation of what happened to Harry is not given for the first third of the novel). A team which had worked with Harry in the past leads the investigation into the police murders, drawing on everything they learned from his tactics.
Harry’s absence from the police force allows Nesbo to focus on the other investigators. Although they have appeared in previous Harry Hole mysteries, the ensemble players are more fully developed in this one. The ones that stand out are Beate Lønn, the head of forensics “who had a reputation as a kind of Rain Woman because of her ability to recognize faces” (16); Katrine Bratt, whose specialty is “tracking down people who had apparently vanished from the surface of the earth. Seeing patterns where others only see chance” (73); and Stȧle Aune, the mild-mannered psychologist who misses his former job as a police consultant “profiling sick souls who killed people with such gruesome acts of brutality that he was deprived of sleep at night” (22). Each of these secondary characters emerges as a round character; in fact, even the more minor characters and villains do not remain flat.
To say that the plot is dense would be an understatement. A concise plot summary is impossible not only because of the introduction of spoilers but also because of the complexity of the plot. The book never fails to surprise with its many twists and turns. Time and time again the reader becomes convinced that one thing is happening only to discover his/her assumptions were incorrect. Some reviewers complain about feeling manipulated but I think Nesbo is a master of misdirection who uses the mystery reader’s tendency to be like Silje Gravseng, a student at the police college who thinks she could tell Harry Hole how to solve a case. In the end, when the case is resolved, the reader should not feel cheated: all the clues are there.
Suspense is definitely a strong element in the book. Several suspects have credible motives, so some of the suspense derives from trying to determine the real culprit(s). More than one investigator finds him/herself in a dangerous situation so the tension diminishes for only brief pauses. One scene involving one of the team suspecting that a family member has been killed is brilliant in the way it ratchets up the suspense, especially since the author does not hesitate to have even major characters killed.
The one flaw is the use of coincidence. Most are acceptable, within the realm of plausibility, but the one that made me uncomfortable is the explanation of what happened to Harry at the end of Phantom (180).
Aune describes Harry Hole as “a starved, exhausted, monomaniacal hunter” and “the tall, grumpy alcoholic with the big heart” (23), but agrees that the former investigator “had been impossible not to love” (501). That’s the way it is with this book; it is not perfect, but it is a compelling read.