Tag Archives: Norway

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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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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