Last year I went to an Audience with Jo Nesbø in the Ulster Hall in Belfast. I have never seen anything like it. It was the biggest author event ever to be held in the city and over 2,000 packed the venue out as if it were a rock concert.
Yet this shouldn’t be such a surprise when you hear some of the figures relating to Jo Nesbø.
- Someone buys a Jo Nesbø novel every 23 seconds.
- In Norway alone he has sold 1.5 million books.
- His worldwide sales are in excess of 15 million.
- Martin Scorsese is set to produce his best- selling novel The Snowman.
- The film version of his stand alone novel Headhunters is the most successful Norwegian film of all time.
Having been a professional footballer and a very successful rock star, Nesbø is probably used to the adulation by now and going by those statistics, he deserves it. When I started reading his books about 10 years ago, he was billed as ‘the next Stieg Larsson’. I think we can safely say that Nesbø has overtaken Larsson as the King of Scandi-crime. At the reading in Belfast, Nesbø was cool and charismatic, witty and smart. A little aloof and reserved, you might even say mysterious. Not unlike his most famous creation Harry Hole (pronounced ‘Hula’).
In Phantom, we find the indomitable Harry Hole returning to Oslo from self imposed exile in Hong Kong. Although no longer a police officer, he has come back to investigate a murder that already appears solved, because the alleged perpetrator is Oleg, son of Rakel, the love of Harry’s life. Harry has been a surrogate father to Oleg in the past and doesn’t believe that the boy he once knew could shoot and kill a fellow junkie named Gusto. Harry has always put great stock in his gut instinct so he delves into a world of drug addiction, smuggling, gangs and corrupt officials as he chases the mysterious drug lord Dubai who has brought ‘violin’ a potent form of heroin to the streets of Harry’s home town.
The city of Oslo comes in to its own in Phantom, like Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh it is nearly a character in its own right. Drug use has been pushed into the seedier districts, but in a plot similar to that of TV drama The Wire’s Hamsterdam, Nesbo cleverly shows us that although the drugs may be purer and the corruption less obvious, the junkie way of life remains the same. Harry’s city looks better, seems cleaner, but the deceit and desperation are never far from the surface and in the case of Oleg, have landed right on Harry’s doorstep.
The story is told through two narrative perspectives. The conventional third-person narrative that follows Harry on his journey is interspersed with first-person memories and observations from the drug dealer Gusto as he lies dying in his junkie den. Although it takes a while to adjust to this structure, it is successful. Gusto’s story provides the foundations that form the basis of Harry’s search for truth and also allows Nesbo to explore issues of broken families and missing father figures, issues that are coming back to haunt Harry and Oleg.
Phantom is definitely the most personal of the Harry Hole series. It reunites Harry with Rakel and forces them both to reexamine and reconsider their relationship. Harry also has to face the fact that his abandonment of Oleg and Rakel and their involvement in his previous cases (most notably The Snowman) may have contributed to the situation Oleg now finds himself in. But more than that, there is, for the first time, a sense that Harry is getting tired. Physically he is carrying scars, his gut instinct is failing him and he just wants a quiet life with the woman he loves. He is, as they say here in Northern Ireland, thinking long.
Well, it is in fact possible to put things behind you, Rakel. The art of dealing with ghosts is to dare to look at them long and hard until you know that is what they are. Ghosts. Lifeless, powerless ghosts.
But as always, Harry is his own worst enemy. He picks at his physical and mental scars constantly and just can’t stop being what he knows deep down he will always be – ‘a policeman’. It’s the one thing he knows he is good at and in some ways it is his downfall. Harry may be an alcoholic, a maverick, but I’ve always seen him as a hopeless romantic when it comes to getting to the truth. Even when a new life with Rakel is within his reach, he can’t let unanswered questions be. He needs the truth, even if it will hurt more than he can imagine.
Let me say here and now that faith has never done me any good, only doubt. So that is what has become my testament.
As always with a Jo Nesbo novel, Phantom is expertly plotted. This is not a book to skim read and at times it moves at such a speed that it feels hard to keep up. The social context of the story is handled with great skill and the second half of the book in particular is relentless with confrontations, revelations and twists coming on every page. It is impossible to put down and that is no mean feat for a writer and shouldn’t be underestimated. That’s not to say Phantom is not without its faults. I often think Nesbø could do with a stricter editor as there is much in the book that seems superfluous. Two story lines in particular, one featuring a Russian hit man hired to kill Harry and the other involving a drug smuggling airline pilot don’t quite gel with the rest of the story yet take up an awful lot of pages. I would also question the inclusion of the passages told from the point of view of a rat (yes, a rat) and how effective they are. It’s a nice metaphor, but as a point of view it verges on the silly. Other characters, such as Oleg’s girlfriend Irene and even the mysterious Dubai himself are thinly drawn and seem to serve merely to propel the plot forward.
So no, Phantom isn’t perfect. Does that really matter? Not for me! I’m invested in Harry and Beate and Rakel and Oleg. I remember Halverston. I love Harry’s pessimistic, melancholic take on life and how being a policeman is ingrained in him. I’ve been with these characters for 10 years and am always going to want to read about them. There is a relentless momentum to the book (to all Nesbo’s books) that mirrors Harry’s recurring nightmare of running from an avalanche. The twists and surprises engulf the reader and eventually Harry himself and Nesbø’s ambiguous cliff-hanger of an ending only heightens our expectations for where his fictional detective can go next.
And yes, in case you were wondering, Nesbø is as handsome in real life 🙂
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