Archive for June 3, 2012

In Phantom [the 7th Harry Hole book to be translated into English] a cleaned up sober Harry Hole returns to Oslo to investigate  the shooting of a handsome young  junkie, Gusto Hanssen. The case has already been solved and another young addict is being held for the crime. Harry is personally involved, but told not to investigate this case by his old boss. From the moment he came back Harry was being watched by the forces that now dominate Oslo’s drug scene, the suppliers of a new very addictive synthetic drug called ‘violin’.

Harry begins a personal odyssey through the dark side of city he once knew so well in order to discover who really killed Gusto.

‘Mm. Thought it was just Moroccans who sold hash here.’

‘Competition has moved in. Kosovar Albanians, Somalis, Eastern Europeans. Asylum seekers selling the whole spectrum. Speed , methamphetamine, Ecstasy, morphine.’  

The narrative is in two parts with Gusto telling his story in flashbacks as he lies bleeding to death, and Harry in the present coming across old friends, old adversaries, and police and political corruption in his quest to uncover the truth. Harry wants to find the real murderer and in the process unmask the drug lord known as Dubai [from the Fly Emirates Arsenal shirts his pushers wear], and also as the Phantom because he is said to wander the city at night.

Despite the book’s length the smooth translation by Don Bartlett makes this a fast compelling read. 

I don’t know if it was the bleakness of the narrative, the paucity of characters the reader could care about, or the constant details about addicts and the drug trade but I was slightly disappointed in Phantom. The were none of the plot pyrotechnics that distinguished some of the earlier books. The twists that were there were fairly predictable and I felt that I had possibly been spoilt by previous Harry Holes. Author Jo Nesbo was coming down to earth with a more straightforward story concentrating on Oslo’s drug trade. 

‘Heinrich Dreser. He discovered aspirin in 1897. Afterwards he worked on modifying diacetylmorphine. Not a lot needs to be done, molecule here, molecule there, and hey presto, it fastens on to other receptors in the human body. Eleven days later, Dreser had discovered a new drug. It was sold as cough medicine right up to 1913.’

‘And the drug was?’

‘The name was supposed to be a pun on a brave woman.’

‘Heroine,’ Harry said.

Jo Nesbo has said that in Phantom he wanted to explore Harry as a father figure, and go into the dark side of Oslo with detailed research on the drug scene. Giving the reader large chunks of detailed information is one of the most interesting features of Nordic crime fiction. However in Phantom some of the information and minor plots lines almost seemed to be there to pad out the narrative and some seemed repetitive. I thought this detracted from the flow of the plot and the suspense. There is nothing new or particularly inventive in Phantom’s sad tale of the ruin of young lives from addiction. There is nothing unique in the Oslo drug scene described in such detail in Phantom as it probably exists in some form in every town and city in Europe. 

I wondered if  perhaps Scandinavian crime fiction series are designed to reach a natural end at number 10 [Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck], and as this is the ninth Harry Hole he was becoming more vulnerable.  

Don’t get me wrong this is still a very good thriller, but in my opinion it is not as inventive nor does it have as many surprises as previous books in the series. There are plenty of nasty villains, lots of red herrings, some exciting set piece action sequences, and thrills galore, but it did not have that unique “Harry Hole-what the hell is going to happen next” feel about it for me.

A very good read but not near Jo Nesbo’s best, simply because he set such high standards. That said I will be waiting expectantly for the next book to be published, and despite my reservations Phantom will probably be a favourite for the International Dagger.  

Nor did the tattooist know that the pistol in the drawing, a Makarov, the Russian police’s service weapon, denoted that he, Sergey Ivanov, had killed a policeman. 

As an introduction to my review of the latest Harry Hole thriller Phantom, which is shortlisted for the 2012 CWA International Dagger Award I have reposted my review of The Leopard with links to the reviews of the rest of the series.

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‘My name is Kaja Solness. I have been tasked with finding you. By Gunnar Hagen.’

No reaction to the name of his Crime Squad boss. Had he gone?

Detective Harry Hole deeply traumatised by the events of The Snowman investigation is hiding out in the opium dens of Hong Kong. When the beautiful Kaja Solness tells Harry his father Olav is dying, he agrees to return to Oslo and investigate the murders of two women, found with twenty four inexplicable puncture wounds, both drowned in their own blood.
There are more murders and as the body count rises Harry, with the aid of the ‘safely sectioned’ Katrine Bratt’s internet search skills, finds a connection between the victims. [Police colleague Katrine Bratt featured in The Snowman]
They all spent one night at the Havass mountain cabin, and so the story becomes an updated version of the old English country house mystery so popular in the Golden Age.

While trying to find the other occupants of the cabin, potential victims or perpetrators, Harry becomes involved in the political battle between Crime Squad, and Kripos lead by the charismatically handsome Mikael Bellman, a man with few scruples and boundless ambition.

‘So if you can use this to outsmart the smart-arse and it leads to Bellman’s plans for the evil empire being shelved, accept it with my blessing.’

This is a book about human relationships and what can develop from them; love, hate, vengeance, greed, ambition, humiliation, fear, and loneliness. The whole panoply of emotions felt from youth to old age and I should warn that is also a rather violent book, and contains just a few passages involving torture. The action takes place briefly in Hong Kong, mostly in Norway and then partly in the Congo, with a large cast of sharply drawn, but mostly unsympathetic characters.
The Leopard is a very long book [611 pages] that proved to be a very fast read because I was so completely engrossed in the characters, complexity of the plot and the various subplots. Definitely a page turner!
Jo Nesbo, aided by an excellent translation from Don Bartlett, teases the reader with plot twists and turns, providing a different solution to the crimes, and then taking the story back to change this again, and again, until the reader is left almost giddy. In what has become almost a trademark style he seemingly finishes the story, and then restarts it again to reach a slightly different ending.

Harry Hole, his character and his internal struggle, is the glue that holds this series together. Harry is tied up in a battle of intellects with both the perpetrator and with Bellman. The conflict is exacerbated because it seems Bellman has everything Harry lacks, position, power, wife, family, children, henchmen, and mistress. But Harry cares about people, Olav his father, Sis his sister with her ‘little touch of Down’s syndrome’, his lost love Rakel and her son Oleg, his friend Oystein and his colleagues and this makes him vulnerable.
Will Harry find the perpetrator before Mikael Bellman, who seems to know the Crime Squad’s moves before they happen? Why are the occupants of the Havass cabin being murdered one by one? What is the terrible connection with the Congo?

Right from the dismantling of colonialist governments in the sixties, they have used white people’s feelings of guilt to acquire power, so that the real exploitation of the population could begin.

I can highly recommend The Leopard, despite the torture passages, and also the entire Harry Hole series as one of the best in modern crime fiction. Ignore the Next Stieg Larsson blurb Jo Nesbo is a unique talent, and Harry Hole one of my favourite detectives.

‘You know me,’ Harry said as Oystein stopped on red outside the Radisson SAS Hotel.
‘I bloody do not,’ Oystein said, sprinkling tobacco into his roll-up.
‘How would I?’
‘Well, we grew up together. Do you remember?’
‘So? You were already a sodding enigma then, Harry.’

The Harry Hole series [books one and two are yet to be translated into English]


The Snowman