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  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.