Posted: June 3, 2012 in Harry Hole, Norway, Scandinavia

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. 

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – Thanks for your well-written and candid review. You make an interesting point about Scandinavian crime fiction series having a natural finite length. I’ll have to think about that; it’s a compelling thought. I agree with you though that this is a very high-quality series overall and I’ll be very interested to see what happens to Harry next myself.

  2. Maxine says:

    I understand what you write about this book being slightly weaker – I felt that the Harry as Superman aspects were a bit silly but I thought the book worked well as a tale of doomed love……the plot did have some unlikely elements, & the subplot about the pilot seemed to fade out & the “phantom” aspect did not seem believable (someone meets Harry & doesn’t kill him, only to set up a complex way to try to do it in the near future….etc etc) — but the message was a strong one in the end, I felt.

  3. kathy d. says:

    Your sobering, down-to-earth review of Phantom encourages me to put my credit card away and wait for the library to have this book in stock. It’s a shame that it isn’t full of the twists and turns of some of Jo Nesbo’s earlier books — Nemesis still being one of my favorite thrillers ever.

    I’ll keep reading reviews but I may just wait until October for this book.

  4. Norman Price says:

    Thanks Margot and Maxine.

    Kathy, I do have problems with books about young people and the drug trade. Among my difficulties the young man, referred to in the link, only a week before his death had been training with my son, who he invited to play for his rugby team.
    Phantom is good but does not reach the heights of The Redbreast, Nemesis,The Devil’s Star or The Snowman.

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