Yesterday I heard a friend describe her first apartment in New York City in the early 80s, shared with two other dancers, set amidst abandoned buildings south of Houston. She slept on the floor of the pantry. She would come home, turn on the lights and actually hear the cockroaches scuttling away.
One of life’s great philosophical questions is – to squash or not to squash. Squashing entails cockroach juice. What’s that trick with boric acid along the baseboards?
When Harry Hole (holeh) arrives in his tiny apartment in Bangkok, he observes a cockroach as big as his thumb with an orange stripe on its back. He notes there are a three thousand different types and that that for every one you see, ten more are in hiding from the vibrations of your feet. For the moment, he regrets his sobriety.
Jo Nesbo published Cockroaches in 1998, his second book after The Bat, set in Sydney, Australia and before Redbreast. It has just been translated and published in English. The comments on Goodreads range from ecstatic to so-so.
My sister, Georgia, collected all the Nesbo books, except Cockroaches and gave them to me one Christmas, suggesting I start with Redbreast. When I got around to reading The Bat, I thought I could have started with it. The real hook is the developing character of Harry Hole and my only problem was that I hate reading about drunks. I was happiest with the books where he pulled himself together at least a little. Which he does in Cockroaches much to the dismay of the government in Oslo.
Hole has been selected to go to Thailand to investigate the death of the Norwegian Ambassador in a Bangkok brothel, partly because of his international success in Australia, but mostly because he is back to drinking. He has forsworn Jim Bean to make do with beer at Schrøders, where he can down nine, and still mess with Wooler, walk home and turn up sober for work next day.
Dagfinn Torhus, Director of Norway’s Foreign Affairs doesn’t even know why it is so urgent to keep all news of Atle Molnes stabbing death under wraps. Bjorn Askilden, Secretary of State, may know, having been briefed by the prime minister’s office. As the Police Superintendent bullies Bjarne Moller, head of the crime squad, into supporting the choice of Hole as lone investigator, we learn only that trust in the P.M. is all important. His centrist government of the Christian Democrats supports family values, is anti-gay, anti-civil union and prone to wearing yellow suits. Moller has kept Hole out of trouble more than once and seriously doubts the wisdom of choosing him to go to Thailand, but clearly this is a political decision.
Harry has troubles of his own. His mentally challenged Sis has been raped and had an abortion, but the police have dropped the case. He agrees to fly to Bangkok, only if he will be allowed to re-open the case when he returns.
He flies drunk. But with Vitamin B in his bag. He was able to get sober in Sydney by using it and although he doesn’t acknowledge it, he has made a decision for sobriety again.
In Bangkok, he meets the police team he will be working with, headed by a very tall, completely bald half-American, Liz Crumley. The rest of the team are Thai, Nho who is young, Sunthorn, baby-faced and the oldest, Rangsan, always hidden behind a newspaper but spouting key ideas.
The back story of prostitute Dim, who discovered the body, actually opens the book. She plies her trade posing as Tanya Harding -“Skates go on after panties come off.”
Harry soon meets his nemesis Woo – a freakishly large enforcer- and according to custom, Woo throws Harry off a balcony.
The murder weapon is a very old knife embedded with coloured glass but greased with reindeer fat. Obviously the murderer is Norwegian. Is it the unsatisfied wife, Hildes Molnes, or even possibly the ambassador’s seventeen year old, one-armed daughter. Is it the victim’s Chargé d’affaires, Tonje Wiig? Is it his receptionist Miss Ao? Is it his seemingly loyal chauffeur, Sonphet? Is it the loan shark who holds the ambassador’s $100,000 gambling debt? Is it Roald Bork, spiritual shepherd of the Norwegian community? Is it Ova Klipra, the wealthy contractor who lives in a former Buddhist Temple and who can’t be found. He finds you. Is it the ex-intelligence officer Ivar Loken, known as LM (living, morphine)? Is it Jens Breeke, currency broker for Barclays Thailand? And what does all this have to do with photos of a man having sex with a child, taken through a window?
We learn a good deal about the sex industry in Bangkok, including Dim’s enrty into it. Brekke treats Harry to a rundown on katoy, trans-sexual prostitutes -a head too tall, a touch too provocative, too aggressively flirtatious and too good looking – including the drawback of surgically constructed vaginas.
We learn a good deal about currency trading and how to make a bundle.
We are treated to a bloody, no-holds-barred boxing match as well as a cockfight and yes, only one cock survives. (You have to admire the lengths Nesbo goes to in his research.)
Most of all, we learn about paedophiles. Disgusted by the photographs, Harry calls home. He calls home much too often for Torhus and Moller’s liking for they are alarmed at his zeal in solving the crime. This time, Harry talks to Dr. Aune, his therapist. There are two kinds of paedophiles, he is told: preference conditioned and situation conditioned. Both may have been abused as children, but the former starts in his teens, adapting to the child’s age, although sometimes playing the role of kindly father. (My own father fitted this category.) The situation conditioned paedophile is primarily interested in adults and chooses the child as a substitute for an adult he is in conflict with.
So, huuuum, what do the cockroaches symbolize? Are they good after all, as Runa asks? And do you ignore them as Oslo wants, arrest them or squash them?
(I bought Cockroaches on iTunes $15 !!! and read it on my iPad.)