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?