The article that follows first appeared a few weeks ago in The Press Weekend magazine. Since then I have had the good fortune to act as the interlocuter in a public literary liaison with Jo Nesbo. On the basis of this experience, I would add that he is a fast-thinking, intense man with a good sense of humour who likes rock-climbing and tends to arrive for appointments either at the last moment or late. And that the thing to bear in mind if and when you read 'Phantom', which you should, is that Harry Hole did not take off his bullet proof vest.
Phantom. Jo Nesbo. 2012. Harvill Secker (Random House). Pp452.
Viewed from almost any perspective, Jo Nesbo is a very creative, highly intelligent man. It took him several years of exploring various avenues before he settled on writing. In his teens, he thought that he would become a professional footballer. Crook knees dashed this dream. He joined the armed forces in northern Norway and while there completed sufficient study to gain entry to University. He completed an economics degree, but also wrote rock songs and eventually had a rock band. It was successful. He became a stock broker, a career choice that would clearly not last. He took six months off and wrote his first novel. It was published to great success in Norway and he has now written a dozen or so novels and sold over 11,000,000 books.
This is phenomenal success. He has now completed eight novels featuring detective Harry Hole, another crime novel ‘Headhunters’ (now made into a film to be released in New Zealand in March when Nesbo is visiting the country) and some children’s fiction. ‘Headhunters’, by the way, seems to divide readers. It is interesting and well written, but to this reader suffers from the slight disappointment of not featuring Harry Hole.
Harry Hole is destined to become one of the great characters of crime fiction.
In the earlier novels, he was an inspector in the Norwegian police and happened to be the country’s most expert tracker of serial killers. So, in spite of his total disrespect for authority (where this respect had not been earned or deserved) he had to be used by those same authorities if serial killers were involved.
Harry is tall, spikily blond and craggy, and in ‘The Leopard’ and now ‘Phantom’ has a severe scar down one side of his face. He is intuitively brilliant, but like many great fictional detectives, he is also flawed. He fights a constant battle with alcoholism, makes poor decisions in the tatters of his personal life and almost inevitably has some Scandinavian angst in his personality. Of course, and again like all great fictional detectives, he has his own idiosyncratic brand of morality. In other words, he is a maverick and in ‘Phantom’ he is functioning in a private capacity, no longer being in the police. This is of course where mavericks belong, slightly outside the law.
Although each of the Harry Hole novels in translation (The Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil’s Star, The Redeemer, The Snowman, The Leopard and now Phantom) stands alone, they follow on from one another as Harry’s life develops. In ‘Phantom’ Harry returns to Oslo from South-East Asia, where he has been recovering from the physical ravages wrought by The Leopard and working as a sort of enforcer. He is back because a young drug seller has been killed and the son of Harry’s ex-girl-friend, Rakel, has been arrested for the killing.
As Harry tries to make sense of what has happened, and of what in many ways is a new Oslo to him, so he re-establishes relationships with Rakel and with the few members of the Oslo police that can tolerate him. This allows Nesbo to turn over the stone that conceals Oslo’s drug world, which is being run by a shadowy figure known as Dubai, but clearly of Russian pedigree. The description of Harry’s progress is interspersed with the rambling thoughts of the dying druggy, and corruption in high places, including the police. Meanwhile, the drug baron knows Harry is in Oslo and has set a trained assassin on his trail.
‘Phantom’ is slightly different from the other Harry Hole novels. It begins more slowly and changes the vantage points of the writing more than the other novels. It is perhaps slightly more ambitious. The ambition is realized however, and the book is as satisfying as the others, in spite of a somewhat equivocal ending.
The Harry Hole novels are first-rate crime fiction. Their plots are satisfyingly replete with twists, turns and surprises and show the genuine creativity, perhaps better described as maverick thinking, of the author. There must be similarities between Nesbo and Hole (in fact, there are - a few). The other characters are convincing and properly three-dimensional. And the atmosphere that Nesbo manages to create in each of the books draws one in inexorably. Norway and in particular Oslo are brought to life, bringing about disturbingly expensive thoughts of wanting to visit.
These books then, with ‘Phantom’ as no exception, are truly hard to put down. They grip, they are sheerly enjoyable and they are very well written (in spite of being in translation from the Norwegian). This is crime fiction of the highest order.
Comparisons should be made, particularly given the welcome proliferation in Scandinavian crime fiction. In my view, Jo Nesbo is a better writer than Stieg Larsson. Larsson’s Millenium trilogy tells a great story and he has created a wonderful character in Lizbeth, but Nesbo and Hole are simply better. Nesbo and Hole even have it over Mankell and Wallendar for sheer enjoyment coupled with the keen creativity and intelligence that has gone into the writing. Perhaps Australia’s Peter Temple comes close, but Melbourne is not Oslo and Jack Irish is not Harry Hole.
If you like crime fiction you must read Jo Nesbo.