Tag Archives: Jo Nesbo

Where it all began for Harry Hole: the Norwegian master-sleuth Down Under

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A review of The Bat, by Jo Nesbo

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s pronounced “HOO-leh.” Not “Whole” or “Hole” or “HO-lee” or any other Americanized bastardization of the Norwegian “Hole.” And that’s just one of the many many fascinating things you’ll learn from reading The Bat, Jo Nesbo’s first novel in the celebrated Harry Hole series of detective novels!

In The Bat, the then 32-year-old detective is in Sydney to lend assistance to the Australian police following the murder of a young Norwegian woman there. Harry is paired with an older detective, an Aboriginal man named Andrew Kensington, who seems bent on introducing him to the history, culture, and language of those he still sometimes thinks of as “his people.” But it’s not long before Harry finds himself immersed with Andrew in the search for a serial rapist and murderer — and, to no reader’s surprise, he quickly demonstrates that he can turn up leads and spin theories far faster than any of his hosts.

The Bat displays some of the signs of the many outstanding Harry Hole novels to follow: thoughtful and intelligent characters who wear their weaknesses on their sleeves, extremely complex plotting, and enough blood and guts to satisfy a depraved Hollywood producer. However, this first book in the series shows a young writer just warming up to his craft. There are long, beautifully constructed speeches where disjointed dialogue would have been more likely, and the story is slow on the uptake, in contrast to Nesbo’s later efforts that invariably start off in mid-story.

Throughout The Bat you’ll find Nesbo musing much as he does in the later books:

  • “You’re a tiny bit damaged every time you unravel another murder case. Unfortunately, as a rule there are more human wrecks and sadder stories, and fewer ingenious motives, than you would imagine from reading Agatha Christie.”
  • “In traditional crime fiction every detective with any self-respect has an unfailing nose for when people are lying. It’s bullshit! Human nature is a vast impenetrable forest which no one can know in its entirety. Not even a mother knows her child’s deepest secrets!”
  • “Everything you do leaves traces, doesn’t it. The life you’ve lived is written all over you, for those who can read.”

The title of this novel, we learn, represents the term for Death in one of the more than 100 Aboriginal languages still spoken in Australia. And death there is aplenty in The Bat. It’s a nicely crafted book despite its flaws, and the suspense will likely hold you until the very end.

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Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police: a gloriously suspenseful mashup

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A review of Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you saw Harry Hole walking up to you on the sidewalk, you’d probably cross to the other side of the street. He’s close to six-and-a-half feet tall, looks tough (and is), and rarely smiles. This much-conflicted detective on the Oslo police force isn’t the kind of guy who makes friends easily or has a lot of fans either on or off the force. He’s an alcoholic who spends more time off the wagon than on, and he seems to devote more effort to pursuing his own investigations than those he’s assigned. However, Harry Hole is a brilliant detective who deploys both intuition and deductive reasoning to solve some of Norway’s most devilishly complex crimes.

In Nemesis, the fourth novel in Jo Nesbo’s celebrated Harry Hole series, a murder committed in the course of a bank robbery engages more and more of the Oslo police as other, similar robberies take place and city officials demand results. Eventually, Harry is assigned to the robbery detail that’s run by one of several of his arch-enemies. Trouble ensues (of course!) when Harry insists on viewing the initial robbery — the focus of the investigation — not as a bank job but as a homicide. Meanwhile, one of the several girlfriends in Harry’s past turns up dead, not incidentally the same evening Harry has dinner with her in her apartment. To make matters worse, Harry can’t remember a thing about the evening. Now, he’s not only at loggerheads with his superior in the robbery detail but a potential suspect in a murder case as well. (Naturally, Harry refrains from telling anyone about his presence at the murder scene.)

As the story unfolds, Harry becomes enmeshed in a series of seemingly unlikely and disconnected subcultures, from the Romany (gypsy) diaspora to the world of bank robbers to the ways of the corporate elite. Nesbo’s research is extensive, and the details that emerge naturally in the telling of the tale are fascinating.

It’s hard to imagine that more than a handful of crime writers anywhere in the world could spin out this tale, seamlessly interweave several complex subplots, populate them all with thoroughly believable characters, and build suspense to a shattering conclusion with the skill that Jo Nesbo brings to his craft.

At his best, as he was in The Leopard, Jo Nesbo is the equal of any mystery writer alive today. Even when his work falls a little short of perfection, the result is still outstanding. Both The Redbreast and Nemesis fall into that category. I can’t wait to read the other seven Harry Hole novels I haven’t yet opened.

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My 21 favorite mystery and thriller writers

Over the course of the past three and a half years, I’ve reviewed well over 100 mysteries and thrillers. A great many of these novels were written by well-established authors with long lists of widely read books to their names. In every case of the 21 writers listed below, I’ve read several of their books (some of them before I launched this blog in January 2010). 

If 21 seems a large number of “favorite” writers, consider all the names you won’t find on this list. Those include several — Ross McDonald, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, for example — whom I last read years ago. Also excluded are the potboilers and slapdash works by the likes of James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Val McDermid, and Robert B. Parker. I read most of these when younger and am happy to leave them behind. 

What follows here is a list of links to my reviews of individual mysteries or thrillers by the 21 prolific authors I most enjoy. The list is in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who writes beautifully researched stories about soldier-spy John Wells, featuring plots centered on contemporary military and foreign policy issues.

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

Most of Connelly’s 30 novels to date center on the life and work of Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. 

Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie

Crombie, a Texan who spends extended periods in Great Britain, has written 15 English detective novels that read as though she was born and bred in England.

The Trinty Six, by Charles Cumming

A Briton who has written superior six spy novels, Cumming is often mentioned as a spiritual heir to John Le Carre.

Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder

Finder is the American author of 11 beautifully crafted thrillers. So far, just two of his novels feature Nick Heller in what appears to be the beginning of a series.

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

Since 1976, Furst has written 16 historical spy novels, most of them set in Europe between 1933 and 1944. Furst’s work recreates the mood and atmosphere of the Continent in that era like few others.

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George

An American, George has written 18 complex and well-written novels featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (plus four other novels).

Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard

Goddard is an English novelist whose two dozen excellent novels are typically set in rural towns, with the origins of their plots found decades in the past.

The Racketeer, by John Grisham

Most of Grisham’s 26 crime novels are set in the American South and involve lawyers and legal shenanigans. He has also written 7 other books since he began writing full-time in 1989.

John Le Carre

Though I wasn’t impressed with Le Carre’s recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, I can’t help but include him in this list. I’m now immersed in his latest work, A Delicate Truth, which strikes me as on a par with his earlier, much praised novels. (To be reviewed soon.)

The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell

A Swede, Mankell’s 11 Kurt Wallander crime stories are dark, complex, and often politically tinged novels that reflect his experience as a long-time progressive activist. He has also written 25 other books.

The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo

Nesbo, a Norwegian, has written 10 complexly plotted mystery novels about the troubled Detective Harry Hole as well as 8 other novels.

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

All but two of Paretsky’s 17 novels feature private detective V. I. (Victoria) Warshawski, who tackles Chicago’s corrupt establishment without compunction.

The Cut, by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos, best known for his writing on the HBO series “The Wire,” is the author of 21 novels, most of them gritty detective stories set on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Silken Prey, by John Sandford

Sandford has written 23 crime novels with the word “Prey” in their titles, all featuring Lucas Davenport, an independently wealthy senior investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Sandford has written 13 additional novels, 7 of them featuring Virgil Flowers, a colorful member of Davenport’s team.

Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

Of Slaughter’s 17 books, 14 are haunting crime stories set in Georgia about the lives of a set of interrelated characters in Atlanta and fictional Grant County.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

Smith’s 14 adult novels (so far) about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, comprise just one of many series in a list of works that’s almost too numerous to count. The man must turn them all out through automatic writing in his sleep!

Three Stations: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith

The 8 fascinating novels in Smith’s Arkady Renko series about the Soviet, later Russian crime investigator are among a total of 27 he’s written under several pseudonyms.

Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer

Steinhauer, an American who has spent extensive periods in Eastern Europe, is the author of a brilliant five-book series about the members of the murder squad in the capital of a fictional country in that region. More recently, the young author has written three thrillers about an American spy and his fictional agency.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh

A former Los Angeles police officer, Wambaugh has written 16 novels and 5 nonfiction accounts about crime and crimefighters since 1971. Nearly all his novels are police procedurals set in L.A., bringing the authentic experience on the streets to life.

Get Real, by Donald E. Westlake

Writing under his own name as well as 16 pseudonyms, Westlake produced a total of 111 novels from 1959 until his death in 2008, nearly all of them set in New York City, two of them published posthumously. My favorites are the many humorous caper tales about the sardonic master criminal, John Dortmunder.

In addition to these 21 writers, I’ve read excellent mysteries and thrillers by 12 other authors whose output is more limited either because they’re young and just beginning their careers, they write primarily in other genres, or, in at least the case of Stieg Larsson, they’re dead. 

Among the younger writers here that show special promise are Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Tom Rob Smith.  

Following are links to my reviews of individual novels by these 12 authors. 

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson

Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Faithful Place, by Tana French

So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman

The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

Shaman Pass: A Nathan Active Mystery, by Stan Jones

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

Primitive by Mark Nykanen

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

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Is Jo Nesbo the world’s best crime novelist?

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A review of The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If Jo Nesbo isn’t the world’s best crime novelist, he’s certainly making a play for the top of the list. For what it’s worth, anyway, I haven’t read anyone better at the game. The Leopard, one of the later entries among the ten detective novels in Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, portrays the conflicted Norwegian homicide cop in the depth of his complexity, pursuing a fiendish serial killer from Norway to the Congo.

The Leopard opens in Hong Kong, where Harry has fled to drown himself in alcohol and heroin following his resignation from the Norwegian police. A serial killer he captured too late had upended his life by separating Harry from the woman he loves. However, a clever young detective from Oslo manages to track him down and persuade him to return with her because he is urgently needed to take on a new high-profile case, the murder of a member of the Norwegian Parliament. Harry consents only because the young detective tells him that his father is seriously ill and confined to a hospital.

The novel functions well on three levels: a suspenseful story of how Harry and his colleagues pursue a brilliant serial killer, uncovering surprises all along the way; an insightful character study of a man wrestling with more than his share of demons as he suffers through the illness and eventual death of his father; and a highly perceptive tale of internal politics within the Norwegian police, focusing on the high-stakes rivalry between two police units that the Ministry of Justice threatens to merge, effectively eliminating Harry’s department and ending his career. Somehow, Nesbo packs all this into a novel of moderate length, managing as well to dip into the Congolese civil wars that center on the trade in coltan (used in cellphones) and touch on the brutal colonial history of the Congo. The Leopard is extraordinarily rich in fascinating detail.

For all that he writes such superb detective novels, Jo Nesbo is also a prominent rock musician and an author of children’s books. (To date, he has written a total of 17 books.) Oh, and he earned a degree from the Norwegian School of Economics, worked as a stockbroker, and was also a top-notch soccer player until he broke his ankle.

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Nazis in Norway, a mysterious assassin, and an insubordinate detective


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A review of The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

For many years, Americans have been dipping into the seemingly bottomless store of crime novels from Scandinavia with noteworthy enthusiasm. Not so long ago, Stieg Larson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dominated the best-seller lists almost as surely as have Harry Potter and the various Shades of Gray. Earlier, many of us got hooked on Henning Mankell’s brilliant creation, Kurt Wallander — certainly, I did, having read all of those superb Swedish detective novels. Earlier still (1990s), the best-selling Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow captured wide attention, and in the 1960s and 70s there was the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Most recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about a Norwegian novelist, Jo Nesbo, and his anti-hero, detective Harry Hole. The Redbreast is my introduction to Jo Nesbo’s nine novels about his complex and often exasperating fictional detective. I have to say I’m impressed. Nesbo’s plotting is fiendishly complex, and his insight into character runs deep. As a writer, he (or perhaps his translator, Don Bartlett) matches up to any of the other Scandinavian crime writers, and he’s a damn sight better novelist than most of the Americans who write best-selling murder mysteries.

In The Redbreast, Harry Hole finds himself on the trail of a would-be assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity unknown to him, but so is the target. To begin with, all he knows is that someone has paid a fortune to acquire what is described as the assassin’s rifle of choice, and he’s determined to discover who bought it, and why. Meanwhile, having screwed up a major assignment and created an international incident in the process, Hole is ordered to investigate a neo-Nazi organization and sidetrack his work on the rifle. Naturally, he ignores the orders and doggedly pursues the trail of the overpriced murder weapon. His journey yields a new perspective on Norway during World War II, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany and many misguided young Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Third Reich. The historical references are both integral to the story and fascinating for an American whose experience of Nazism has come exclusively from books and film.

Previously, I reviewed the second and third books in Larson’s trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’ve also reviewed Mankell’s The Man from BeijingThe Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, and The Troubled Man, the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. (The titles are linked to my reviews.)

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