Drunkenness: probably NOT a contradiction to despair

It’s quarter after 3 and there’s no one in the place
‘cept you and me
So set ’em Joe
I got a little story I think you oughtta know….. (Harold Arlen/Johney Mercer)

(Frank Sinatra,melancholy, on a bar stool -the apotheosis of melancholy, too romantic to be despair. Tears in my beers).

It was quarter to 4, when I woke up. It’s inching toward 5:15 dawn now. No big deal. A friend of mine hasn’t really slept for six months. I just logged 4 hours. She sometimes gets only 2, although there are signs she’s moving out of Winston Churchill territory. Five hours seems doable to her now.

What better time than the tail-end of the night to contemplate drunkenness.

For the past few days of global chaos, I have been reading Ken Bruen’s last two Jack Taylor crime novels, The Emerald Lie and The Ghosts of Galway. When I say ‘last’, I mean adieu Jacko, at least that’s what the author has implied in interviews. From the condition of the man, it’s no wonder. He has suffered so many vicious attacks as a Guard and a private eye that he is a physical wreck -lame, deaf, with mutilated fingers, and a heart full of grief. All of his friends and even his dogs meet dreadful ends because of him. Well, not even Bruen is heartless enough to eliminate every last one. Maybe there is a short story that will clear up the oversight. Jack drinks! He likes a Guinness and a Jameson chaser. He likes the Guinness built just right. In the right mood, he can lose months of his life to these libations and then months more to the aftermath.

He can’t go into a bar without someone, usually a woman, with a wad of cash, sidling up to him and saying, “You’re Jack Taylor.” It may be a simple job, like ‘find my lost brother’ -who is entirely fictional, but more often as time has gone on, it has been ‘Look what this bastard did to my girl. Get me some payback.” Payback gets gotten, although not always by Jack. Jack’s a hurley stick man, but others in his orbit use more lethal means.

Jack is a good man, his landlady says early on and his good friend, the outside nun, later on. He is a keen man for justice, humanized by reading and music and his love of dogs and swans. He has been hardened by his “walking bitch of a mother with her tame priest”, by the corruption of the church and  the government, by the miserable poverty attendant on the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and, perhaps most of all, by the water tax.

Suffice to say Bruen knows from PTSD.

The Irish have a reputation for enjoying a drop. I do not say drunkenness. Who am I to judge? I lived with Connor for many years. He gave up martinis every Lent. I lived in hell for 40 days each spring. I have a beloved relative, Colin, who is more sensible and less church-ridden. He says of his year-round habit, “Mostly ice,” as he pours his Bombay Gin. Vermouth doesn’t even get to breathe on the glass. Both get loquacious, even argumentative. I got many a cooking lesson in front of guests from Connor. Neither fall down or pass out or miss work.

I find it hard to read the Joe Nesbo books where Harry Hole descends into drunkenness and heroin. But then some experiences have to be first hand: sex is another one. And Harry is needed sober and strong back in Norway.

College binge drinking lost its glow for me before I got out of high school. Just that one, totally horrible, unable-to-feel-appendages experience put me right off. The stag and doe parties that I see depicted on Brit telly and which apparently happen here as well are not my cup of booze. I also had a terrible experience with a brownie on my niece’s 50th. That  limited my appreciation of getting high for good and all.

I know I drink too much wine for a person of my age and constitution. A 6-oz-glass puts me in legal jeopardy, although drinking in solves that problem. Drinking alone? Get real.

(A librarian once told my daughter never to eat while reading. My daughter was outraged, “You have to eat, you know.)

So the flaming world is falling apart. The leader of the free part is tailoring his actions to please 30% of his country. They don’t seem to be terribly well-informed about historical precedent. They don’t seem to know much geography and certainly even less economic theory than the rest of us. Which is saying something! They can’t tell a good guy (Canada) from a bad guy ( Russia). They claim to be helpless to prevent child massacres on their home soil. To them, children separated from parents and locked in what sure do look like kennels if not cages, brought that on themselves, and can damn well show up in court to coo or babble their own defense – in Spanish.

Who wouldn’t drink?

The most drunken person I ever met was my Aunt Mae. She was drunk on the love of Jesus, and joyfully swept all and sundry up in her ecstasy. Also she wouldn’t say no to a nip of brandy.

Jesus and I fell out one time.

Yet I know that what woke me up this night and what is keeping me awake is fear and self-restraint and that the answer is release.

Coleman Barks organizes some of Rumi’s poems into ‘Tavern Madness’ in Rumi: the Book of Love. The tavern is a place where passion breaks loose, an excited place where one is out of one’s mind, with others.There is the shared sense of the presence flowing through. We are connected. We are one, present and absent at the same time. I love the poem that says
I didn’t come here of my own accord
And I can’t leave that way
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

It reminds me that something has charge over me. Whatever that is will see me safe home.When I read that, I remember I am not alone in passion or rage or goodness or hope or despair or terror. Whether what holds us together is DNA or Soul, it is universal and wise enough, drunken enough, to triumph.

In the meanwhile raise a glass – soda water with or without lemon will do. Drunkenness, O Necessarily Sober One, is fundamentally not about alcohol.

(Full disclosure: my biological grandfather, who hailed from the Emerald Isle, died syphilitic  in New Hampshire madhouse. But may have been teetotal.)





Jo Nesbo’s Cockroaches

cockroachYesterday 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.)



Is this the End of Harry Hole#2: Police by Jo Nesbo

Spoilers for earlier Nesbo books and dark hints for Police.

Some months ago, I finished Jo Nesbo’s novel The Phantom in a panic and querried whether that was the end of Harry Hole (pronounced hooleh).  (See Is This the End of Harry Hole https://115journals.com/2013/03/27/jo-nesbos-the-phantom-is-this-the-end-of-harry-hole/  The appearance of a new book Police seemed to argue against it, but I got well into the new book -32% into it, my Kindle said- and Harry was still missing. It’s true there was a closely guarded coma patient in an otherwise empty locked ward in Oslo. That could be Harry, I thought. Last we knew, Harry’s “step-son” Oleg Fauke had gunned him down with a Russian Odessa – a copy of the better-known Stechkin – in a drug squat.

The first few pages of Police is told from that gun’s point of view, tracing its journey from Siberia to Norway in the hands of Rudolf Asayev and finally to Rakel Fauke’s house where it is now “sleeping” in a corner cupboard, smelling of old wood, powder residue and gun oil. Nesbo helpfully reminds us that two of its five bullets killed Gusto Hanssen who had pocketed Asayev’s money and dope, and that its next three bullets hit Harry Hole. Hitchcock said that if a gun is carried onto the stage in act one, it will sooner or later be an important plot device. There are 12 bullets left in the magazine.

As to the sleeping man in a hospital bed in a locked ward, a number of people hope never to see him again, including Mikael Bellman, the bent police chief, Harry’s nemesis.

After the glimpse of the hidden Odessa, Nesbo gives us a lovely picture of September in Norway and brings Erland Vennesla, a jogger and recently retired detective onto the scene. Poor Erland soon becomes the first victim in a series of carefully executed murders of police, mostly at the site of an unsolved murder that the victim investigated. As the bodies of police begin to pile up, Harry’s old boss Gunnar Hagen, head of Crime Squad, assembles a secret inside team consisting of Harry’s helpers: Katrine Bratt, the Bergen detective who spent time in a mental hospital, Beate Lonne, the head of Krimteknisk, who literally cannot forget a face, Stale Aune, Harry’s psychotherapist, and Rasta Hat, Bjorn Holm. Meeting in the Boiler Room as of old – so far beneath police headquarters that it’s almost in the prison next door- they bemoan the fact that Harry is totally unavailable. He was Norway’s only expert on serial murderers.

Long-standing bad guys are still on the scene, including Bellman, his lover Isabel Skoyen, a prominent city councilor, and Truls Bernsten, his erstwhile sidekick, temporarily suspended from the police department but still able to act the part of ‘burner’, destroyer of evidence. Bellman, of course, forbids Gunnar Hagen to split the investigation of the police murders between the regular police department and the four in the Boiler Room.

But who is the lecturer at the police college, the expert who has enthralled an attractive student, Silje Gravseng? And why are mysterious visitors waiting for him in his office? So his red-bearded colleague, Arnold, informs him? Surely this well-spoken, well-groomed person cannot be …..

As usual in Nesbo’s books, the murders are bizarre even grotesque, and in this case, duplications of old unsolved murders. And as usual Harry and his group leap to wrong conclusions. More than once. Harry is passionate about justice and committed to finding the bad guy, but bright? Not so much.

The trouble with Jo Nesbo as a writer is that he is capable of cold bloodedly killing off even the most beloved characters. He had Ellen Gjelten, Harry’s partner beaten to death just when she was about to tell Harry who the ‘Prince’ was. As a result, Oleg got kidnapped by the villain and narrowly escaped death, not for the last time. Then in the next book, Halvorsen, Harry’s new partner and father of Beate’s son, got gunned down. Moreover, Nesbo has said that Cockroaches due to be released soon is the last Harry Hole novel. (It is actually the second book after The Bat and before The Redbreast, translated only now.)

As the novel reaches its climax, Rakel and Oleg are menaced once again and surely this time, Harry cannot save them. Or himself.

Thus, this reader arrived near the end of the book at a solemn church service where the Boiler Room crew and the surviving cast members have assembled. Bellman is impatient for the organ to announce the ceremony. How inappropriate!

I may never forgive Nesbo for his tricky ways.

Guess What Came Up at Dinner: Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner


(If you plan to read The Dinner and you hate any kind of spoiler, walk on by. But if you don’t mind knowing a little, read on.)

A week or so ago, I got bent out of shape by the ending of Jo Nesbo’s The Phantom (115journals.com -Is this the end of Harry Hole?) This week it’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which has recently been translated from Dutch and published in English and has, from all reports, become a runaway best seller. In the first case, my reaction arose out of affection. Not so, with The Dinner.

The newspapers I get were coy in their reviews. One review in the National Post, recommended that potential readers should read nothing about the book, not even that review. Apparently, there was a surprise that we should not spoil. As I later found out other reviewers were more straight-forward, even allowing that Koch was true to his usual depiction of humanity. I wish I had read them first or had some prior knowledge of Koch’s other work. What I wanted badly when I finished was someone to talk to about the book. So far, I haven’t found anyone.

You’re it, I guess.

A reviewer for the Toronto Star called the narrator, Paul Lohman, “fairly reliable”. Excuse me? It is true that initially, I assumed the narrator and I had some opinions in common, a distaste for contemporary food pornography for one. The novel’s action is set in an upscale Amsterdam restaurant and each section is titled after a dinner course, ‘Aperitif’, ‘Appetizer’, all the way to ‘Digestif’. Reviews tend to quote the same sentence to illustrate what Paul (and I/we) disdain: the maitre d’ points with a bent pinkie finger and says, “The lamb’s-neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil with rocket…the sun dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria.” (Alan Preston: The Observer) Makes you remember when your mother told you about the little children starving in China. In spite of the initial “civilized” opinions with which the reader can agree, it soon becomes evident that Paul is not as he portrays himself. As a history teacher, he has been placed on the non-active list. And, under stress, he is not to be trusted around a burning pan.

Two couples, Paul and his wife, Claire, and his brother, Serge and his wife, Babette, have met for dinner to discuss an extremely serious family matter. The only reason they have been able to get a last minute table at this exclusive restaurant is that Serge is a political rock star, about to be elected prime minister. According to Paul, Serge is a hypocrite, an egotist, a man without taste in food or holiday home. Certainly it would appear that Serge has used very bad judgement in locating this sensitive discussion in such a public venue, but I suppose, both families are trying to avoid their 15 year-old sons who are the subject of the discussion. A first person narrator requires the reader to agree to see events through that narrator’s eyes and this gets creepier and creepier as the novel moves on.

Suppose you are a parent. Suppose your child has done something morally wrong. How do you handle it? Do you consider your primary loyalty to lie with your family unit or do you take the wider human family into account? Do you consider the impact on your child’s future education and career or do you consider it necessary to right a wrong?

Once upon a time, my 7 year-old son pocketed his friend’s dinky toy at show-and-tell. He showed it to me saying his friend had given it to him. I questioned the culprit briefly and marched him to his friend’s door where son returned the toy and said sorry. I didn’t even wait to ask Dad his opinion. In my opinion, that was my son’s education. But of course, I am not labouring under Paul’s difficulty, an unnamed genetically caused anger-management issue. A number of reviewers thought that weakened Koch’s examination of our present day tendency to violence.

So what am I saying? Am I disgruntled that a whole book is taken up with a fruitless discussion of the sort of problem I think most parents would resolve in a heartbeat? Well, even I might have needed a few heartbeats given the viciousness of this deed. But what kind of people handle things as Paul and Claire do in the end? Is this what we have become?

Serge has his own idea with which the other three do not agree. While it is indeed better, he might have been more persuasive – he is a politician after all – and he pays a terrible price. Let’s just say that this is the last time he will get a table at this swanky restaurant and that will be the least of his problems. There is no nemesis, no natural justice, no neatly tied up ends in The Dinner. The female of the species turns out to be more monstrous than the male and their 15 year-old son is bound to become a monster of an entirely different order.


I need to note that I felt compassion as I made my 7 year-old return the purloined toy. It was humiliating for him. But one of his best qualities now is his integrity.

For an update about the movie see https://115journals.com/2013/09/16/guess-what-came-up-at-dinner-update-on-kochs-the-dinner/

Is This the End of Harry Hole? – Jo Nesbo’s The Phantom:

(Of course there is a spoiler of sorts for The Phantom as well as for The Snowman.)

Yikes! as they used to say in the funny papers, is this the end of Harry Hole?

I get to page 440 of The Phantom and have to stop to phone Georgia, who gave me all the Jo Nesbo books for Christmas.

“Tell me it isn’t true!” I demand, but she doesn’t have time to talk. She has to rush off. “Yes or no, doesn’t take long”, I grumble as she disconnects.

I had listened to an interview with Nesbo, in which he conceded that Harry wasn’t going to go on forever, but not yet, I’m not ready to let him go yet.

It’s way past time to get dinner, but I can’t go on. I sit down, reread that page carefully, read the next ten pages very carefully, cogitate, examine and finally, go on line. Dinner is very late.

If you have read any of Nesbo’s series about the Oslo detective, Harry Hole ( sounds like whoole with the e sounded), you know that Harry is not sufficiently hardboiled. He can take any amount of physical abuse and pain, but he suffers from the emotional aftermath of his cases. The ghosts that haunt him in his dreams make his alcoholism worse. At the beginning of The Leopard, he is living in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong. The name belies the sordidness of the accommodations. He has fled there after The Snowman almost succeeded in killing Rakel, the woman Harry loves, and her son, Oleg. He is controlling his drinking by using opium. Kaja Solness has been dispatched by the police department to bring him back to catch a new serial killer, The Leopard. Harry would not have returned if she had not also brought news that Harry’s father is very ill.

Return he does and fights his way doggedly through a labyrinth of scant evidence and best guesses, taking the usual wrong turns in his search for a murderer who uses a bizarre weapon only available in the Congo. He accumulates ever more angst, including another recurring nightmare, and new physical scars and, having solved the case, flees back to Hong Kong.

Where he gets a job although it’s just as well not to inquire what his mandate is as long as you are clear that it requires wearing a suit, linen for the climate. He is neither drinking nor getting high. This time, he returns to Norway at his own behest. One of his ghosts is in trouble. The one causing the trouble is an invisible figure who gives rise to the title, The Phantom but not one who deals the blow on page 440.

So what did I conclude after all that pre-dinner research and careful rereading? It’s a matter of interpretation, no doubt. Mine prefers to err on the optimistic side. Who is that “poor man” the priest gives a twenty krone coin to as he muses about the beggar’s “innocent blue eyes of a newborn baby that needs no forgiveness for sins as yet”.


Is That Supposed to Be Funny? – consider satire

Satire, like irony, gets misunderstood, especially when delivered deadpan. Deadpan artists find themselves harangued by the serious-minded at home and in the boss’s office. More than once, I have found myself explaining this difficulty to irate parents and the principal. I have taken a vow then and on other occasions not to “joke” with maturing minds or in emotionally fraught situations. To no avail.

Satire can be dreadful.

Think of that awful man – what was his name?- Jonathan Swift, who made a “modest proposal” that the babies of the Irish, who were being starved out in the eighteenth century, should be served as Sunday roast to their English landlords. Now I ask you is that an essay to teach to young minds?

Several things made me think about satire: my post “Zero Dark Thirty: lessons in self-love” http://115journals.com, reading Jo Nesbo’s novel, Headhunters and Martin Amis’s novel Lionel Asbo: State of England as well as George Saunders‘ Tenth of December.

My post on Zero Dark Thirty considers the dark subjects of torture and family abuse, not amusing, indeed deeply unsettling, not to say anguishing, so dreadful that my instinctive response was to resort to satire, to treat them flippantly. I depended on the reader to work it out that since it was apparent that I know the dreadful effects of such brutality, I was not actually treating it lightly. My words grew out of deep compassion for suffering, just as Swift’s did. He portrayed the monstrous behaviour of the English landowners by proposing a solution that mirrored that monstrosity.

Martin Amis’s novel, LIonel Asbo: State of England is about a lottery lout, a recidivist, so often in and out of jail for petty crimes that he has changed his name to ASBO, naming himself for The Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a distinction that he claims to have won at a younger age than anyone before him. Basically, he was society’s enemy long before he started school. He is a brutal low level thug who keeps vicious dogs and feeds them Tabasco sauce to render them meaner and more effective help in his loan-collecting business. He has taken in his orphaned 15 year-old nephew, Desmond Pepperdine. They live in a 2 bedroom council flat high above Diston Town, a fictional suburb of London,, and the dogs live on their balcony. Desmond has a small secret: he is having sex with his 35 year-old Nan, Lionel’s mother and Desmond is certain that Lionel will kill him when he finds out. Meanwhile Lionel goes back to jail and while there wins millions in the lottery and emerges a media darling.

The novel covers a number of years, during which Desmond is able to give up incest, get an education, marry and have a baby, all while still living in the flat – Lionel having risen above it or being back in jail- the dogs still on the balcony, still scoffing down the Lionel-mandated Tabasco sauce, still ravening monsters. The question is does Lionel learn about Desmond and Nan. The question is not who let the dogs out.

British reviews were not flattering. The Brits themselves were deeply offended. What does he mean ‘The State of England’? They said it was Amis’s final insult as he moved to New York City. Which only goes to show that his satire succeeded brilliantly.

What is the target of Amis’s satire? The ever younger age at which the disadvantaged are having sex and getting into trouble. Being famous for being famous. Lionel’s girl friend, “Threnody” is a glamourous model who insists that her name be spelled in quotation marks. But it is the absolute despair of Diston Town, the unemployment, the complete lack of opportunity, Amis takes aim at. Culture and beauty and interesting ideas don’t even come into the picture. And the absolute lack of humanity: Lionel who has more than enough money to help out, does nothing, on principle, even for his own family. His mother dies in poverty of extreme old age before she is forty. Exaggeration is a tool for satire and of course these things are grossly exaggerated. Aren’t they?

Jo Nesbo’s  satiric novel, Headhunters, is a surprising change of pace for a writer who specializes in mystery thrillers. Set in Norway, Nesbo’s home territory, it is narrated by Roger Brown, headhunter par excellence. He begins by detailing an interview with a potential placement for a job as CEO of a well known company, a man who is 14 centimeters taller than himself. Roger is a relatively short man, 1 meter 68, about 5 ft. 8 as near as I could figure out. (I know, I know – I live in a metric country, but I still do height in- what- imperial.) Like Nesbo’s detectives, Roger conducts the interview according to the FBI nine step interrogation model -submission, confession and truth are its basic principles. Roger rejects the candidate but outlines how improvement can be made.

Roger Brown is a driven man, financially over-extended in an effort to please his beautiful wife Diana, who, he is afraid, will leave him for a taller man. He moonlights as an art thief, stealing valuable paintings off the walls of the wealthy, including this client and replacing them with photocopies. Into his life walks a taller man, Clas Greve, who shows up at Diana’s art gallery and charms her into getting him an interview with Roger. Turns out Greve is even better at the FBI’s nine step method than Roger and soon gains the upper hand in the interview. Turns out Clas has found a hitherto unknown Rubens while renovating his apartment. Turns out Greve takes advantage of his height differential. The self-assured Roger soon finds himself out of his role as master of the universe, the mere tool of the more masterful Greve.

There are genuinely funny scenes, which had me laughing out-loud, not least of which occurred in an outhouse on a remote farm. Let’s just say that Roger finds himself in reduced and unsavoury circumstances.

Headhunters like Nesbo’s detective stories includes the grotesque and unexpected but it differs in allowing a measure of redemption.

On one level, Nesbo is satirizing the Gordon Geckos of the business world. He carefully itemizes their designer suits and ties and their Italian shoes, carefully calibrating the nuances of the hierarchy. He is attacking ego and greed and the lust for power with his considerable wit and insight. But on another level, he is satirizing our human propensity for trying to control life that is fundamentally chaotic and beyond control. Even if we are 6 ft. tall.

George Saunders’ Tenth of December is a book of short stories that Saunders says reflects the good fortune of his life at this point. (These are far from his own words and he could have fooled me.) Saunders is referring, I assume, to his commercial success and his contentment with his creative writing professorship at Syracuse U. One of the stories is set in the near future when drugs are capable of resolving any inconvenient emotional state while, in reality, creating others equally problematic. In “Escape from Spiderhead”, convicts are serving their time in a research facility. Initially, the experiments deliver drugs that heighten pleasure and even include what every writer dreams of – “pepped up” language centres. They move on to include extremely good sex with an inmate of the opposite sex and then they morph into something much darker, something which tests the subject’s willingness to harm another. In “Exhortation”, a boss writes a memo encouraging those under him to do their jobs with a more positive attitude; otherwise, he and they will be replaced by a team that will. It might well have been written for those doing the experiments in “Escape from Spiderhead”. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, a father who is fast losing his middle class status, seeks to gain status by filling his garden with Semplica Girls. Gradually, Saunders reveals that these are not cute garden gnomes but living women, from third world countries, who have contracted to be strung together and displayed in fetching arrangements. In “Victory Lap”, a teenaged boy, an only child, who has been warned never, ever to put his precious self in danger, watches the kidnapping of a neighbour girl in conditioned paralysis, until he can’t. My favourite story is “Tenth of December” in which a boy lost in a fantasy world in rural New England, comes upon the trail of an older man, dying of a brain tumour, who has decided to commit suicide by freezing to death. In the ensuing and hilarious chase as the boy tries to catch up and save the would-be suicide, a sudden turn of events proves heart-stopping and redemptive.

Saunders’ stories, published in New Yorker and the Atlantic between 2000 and 2011, deal with contemporary situations, including returning veterans, who have lost their families and their way. They deal with the hollowing out of the middle class and the on-going economic downturn. They satirize parents who try, despite their reduced circumstances, to give their children nothing but the best. “Victory Lap” takes aim at health food nuts and ecological freaks who attempt to stunt empathy. “Puppy” is a darker look at the gap between the well-to-do and the poor. Suicide crops up in 2 other stories, which do not have such positive outcomes as “Tenth of December”. Yet, in one case, it represents a moral victory and “Tenth of December” seems like a reminder that life, with all its pain and despair, is worth living intensely right up to the last second.

Will Harry Hole Stop Drinking? – Jo Nesbo’s crime novels

Jo_Nesbo©Arvid_Stridhphoto by Arvid Stridh

Jo Nesbo has lightened my long, flu-ridden winter. I received 7 of his Harry Hole detective novels for Christmas and his thriller The Headhunters.

Jo Nesbo is Norwegian and so his first name is not actually pronounced Joe but rather Yu, if you can imagine pursing your mouth Norwegian-style. His detective’s name, Harry Hole,  is an embarrassment to Harry when he goes to Australia in The Bat, so he tells people it is pronounced Holy. In Norwegian, it actually sounds more like Whoole, with a short ‘e’ sound accented at the end. Having said that, I have read it as plain Harry Hole in 5 novels and suffered no ill effects.

Nesbo’s CV implies he is a Renaissance man – musician, songwriter, economist and author. His band is called Di Dirre, which means, Those Guys, and is successful in Norway. He worked for many years as a stockbroker, but he doesn’t need to anymore. His latest novel The Phantom is a bestseller in England, Sweden and Germany. The Headhunters has been made into a movie and NBC is going to release the pilot of a series for I Am Victor. His novels have been translated into every conceivable language. The English translator is Don Bartlett.

Nesbo’s detective, Harry Hole works for the Oslo police department and, as one reviewer says of The Phantom, Oslo itself is like a second main character. All of the novels have its map at the front, so that the reader has some idea of where Harry is when he is wandering the streets, the names of which an English speaker will be unable to pronounce. If I were dropped off at Oslo’s central railway station, I could find my way to police headquarters at this point.

Nesbo regards Harry as quintessentially Norwegian – a man of few words with a dark sense of humour who prefers to work alone. Harry doesn’t care much what rules he breaks and tends to disregard his superiors when they make rules to rein him in. He is not, to use Nesbo’s words, a moral superman. Far from it. His work has all but destroyed him. There was that car accident in which his young assistant died. The question of who was driving haunts Harry. And two other partners have been murdered. Harry  deals with the ghosts that visit him in nightmares by drinking. He easily outstrips Ian Rankin’s Rebus and Henning Mankell’s Wallender as a booze artist. And my spies tell me that he adds hard drugs to his addictions in The Phantom, which I have not yet read.

I don’t like stories about drunkenness. I find them tiresome, so I got impatient with The Bat when Harry, after a serious emotional blow, goes on a long bender. I was glad when he went back on the wagon, falling off only briefly from time to time.

Nesbo says that character is more important to him than story. Nevertheless, his books are carefully plotted and often take sudden unexpected turns. More than once I have been only two thirds of the way through and thought that the murderer had been uncovered. Then, lo and behold, something altogether new, and sometimes quite bizarre develops.

The main question Nesbo is trying to answer is whether Harry will make the right moral choice or more generally, whether characters will save their immortal soul. Nesbo has a gift of showing us the mind of his villains, at times, so we come to care about the state of their souls. And, at least in one case, Harry shows more mercy than vengeance.

There is an ongoing narrative of Harry’s life, professionally, in relation to his department and personally, in his relationship with Rakel and her son, Oleg. I read the books slightly out of order because I went by the date of publication of the English translation rather than the original Norwegian publication date. I would have preferred to read them in order. The person who assembled the collection for my Christmas gift, suggested I start with The Redbreast because The Bat, which was published earlier, is not, in her opinion, as strong. I can see her point.

I liked The Redeemer (2005) best so far because of the decisions Harry makes in it are unusual and satisfying to me. I liked The Red Breast (2000), which deals with the division in Norway during World War II, when some people, like Nesbo’s mother worked in the Resistance, and some like his father, fought for the Nazis and how this past impacts on neo-naziism in the present. Nemesis (2002) is about a bank robbery, which becomes a murder, or is it the other way around, and it has Nesbo’s trademark twists and turns. The Devil’s Star (2003) lead me to say as I finished it that it was the product of a diseased mind, by which I guess I meant that it was creepy. The Snowman (2007) is brilliantly plotted, but now snowmen as well as waterbeds creep me out. I am reading the stand-alone thriller (i.e. not a Harry Hole book) The Headhunters at present and I still have The Leopard as well as The Phantom on the shelf, waiting to be read.

Reading thrillers is itself an addiction and I can hardly wait to get back to Harry. Will he ever stop drinking?