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?

Walter White, a Macbeth for our time

I’m on the point of cancelling a week at a cottage. So far my satellite company has not posted Sunday’s schedule and I can’t set my TIVO/PVR to record Breaking Bad. I am supposed to leave tomorrow morning, but how can I go away and leave Jesse at the mercy of an ever-worsening Walt?

I know. I’m deranged. That’s what comes of watching Season 4 in its entirety and the first  4 episodes of Season 5 in 4 days.

I’m catching up. I saw only an episode here and there in the first 3 seasons, but when Season 5, episode 1 proved incomprehensible -what happened to Ted and why is it Skylar’s fault? how did Walt blow up the meth lab? what happened to the little kid?- I decided to back track to season 4. By a miracle, I actually found Big Daddy Video up on Dundas St., next door to a shuttered Blockbuster. (I haven’t made the jump to an Apple box and Netflix obviously.) There was a flaw in my plan, of course, because there were things I didn’t get about the beginning of Season 4 because I hadn’t seen Season 3. Never mind.

What I want to say is that Walt is a latter day Macbeth, a good, highly competent person who makes a choice to go over to the dark side.

Macbeth is the charismatic leader of King Duncan’s army and has just successfully defeated a rebellion against the old king. The throne of Scotland is not strictly hereditary, Duncan’s son is young and inexperienced and if Macbeth had not been so impatient, he might well have become king without resorting to violence. In addition, he has the three wryd sisters plotting to make him the devil’s agent and his social-climbing wife calling him a coward if he does not take the knife to Duncan, his cousin and a guest in his castle.

Walt has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, has lost his job as a high school chemistry teacher and, therefore, has no medical insurance. He has a teenaged son with physical disabilities and, at this point, a new-born daughter. Knowing he is going to die sooner rather than later, he wants to provide for them and what better way than to become the cook of the purest methamphetamine possible.

Walt’s wife Skylar is not instrumental in pushing Walt into a life of crime. Initially, he keeps it a secret from her. But by Season 4, she is in on the act and is laundering the money, always cash of course that he is making. And she is making decisions that are equally questionable.

Macbeth has a good friend in Banquo, who is almost his equal in Duncan’s army, just as Walt has his former student, Jesse, almost his equal as a chemical genius. Banquo and Jesse enable an exploration of the theme of loyalty, although Banquo doesn’t survive until Act 5 as Jesses has.

Duncan, the good, mild old king has a polar opposite in Gus, the cold, meticulous target of Walt’s homicidal urge.

At first after the initial murder, Macbeth’s true nature asserts itself and he is appalled by what he has done. Lady Macbeth imagines that she is not so lily-livered and goes back to the murder scene to plant the knives on the drunken guards. After that, Macbeth grows in evil, committing or commissioning murder after murder, reaching his lowest point when he has children slaughtered.

Surely, you say, Walt would not stoop to that. Watch Season 4 very carefully. And what about all those meth heads that hung out at Jesse’s?

Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, the DEA agent takes the role of nemesis, the agent of justice, and has only narrowly failed to catch the cook of pure meth, nicknamed Heisenberg. Macbeth’s nemesis is Macduff, he who lost “all his little ones”.

The trouble for viewers is that they actually want the hero (protagonist is just such a long word) to succeed. At least at first. And what does that say about us?

True most people have gone off  Macbeth by the time Banquo’s ghost crashes the banquet, although we may falter momentarily when Lady Mac, who was not so tough after all, kills herself. “My way of life is fallen into the sere and yellow leaf….” By the end, Macbeth is dead as he should be, a truly tragic figure for he could have been so much more.

Walt is getting nastier and nastier and more remote from human relationships. Even Skylar is afraid of him. Without a doubt, the second half of Season 5 when it arrives next year, will bring us Walt’s demise as well. Will we still be cheering for him?

Hey, I just remembered. The cottage gets the same satellite service as this place does. I’ll just have to arm wrestle the remote away from the other 10 people staying there.