No 591 The Bat by Jo Nesbo

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I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo and his dark, troubled creation Harry Hole. Nesbo has just published The Thirst, his eleventh in the Harry Hole series. I’ve read almost all the books, but thought I would go back to the beginning and read The Bat, the first Harry Hole novel written in 1997 but only published in the UK in 2012.

Following an accident that killed a colleague, the guilt-ridden and recovering alcoholic Harry Hole is sent to Australia to investigate the murder of Inger Holter, an ex-children’s TV presenter in Norway, who has been living and working in a Sydney bar. Despite being sent as an observer, Harry being Harry, is soon sucked into the case which appears to be the work of a serial killer, targeting fair haired women.

The Bat is an accomplished enough novel, but lacks some of the skills which make Nesbo’s later works like The Redbreast or The Snowman so successful. The setting will seem strange to Nesbo fans, used to encountering Harry in his Oslo milieu. The cold and snow of the Norwegian landscape is replaced with the heat and bars of Sydney. On his arrival in Australia, Harry is assigned to work with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal ex-boxer who is a well-written and intriguing character. However Nesbo uses Andrew as a voice for the way the Aboriginal people have been treated and the political struggles they face in general society. These passages are often superfluous and feel shoe-horned in to make a wider point about the debt owed by Australia’s collective guilt.

As you would expect from Nesbo, the book is well-plotted, but lacks the page-turning pacing of his later books. The story takes a while to really hit its stride but when the investigation becomes a catalyst for the resurgence of Harry’s demons it becomes more involving. In fact, Harry and those demons is probably the best reason for delving in to The Bat at all.

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Throughout the series, what happened in Australia and what brought Harry there in the first place, has often been alluded to. Harry’s tortured nature, his alcoholism and his disdain for authority all have their roots in this story and it is interesting to explore the pivotal experience that made Harry the character that regular readers of the books have come to love.

It is also interesting to see the work of a younger Nesbo. While not as tightly paced or plotted as the later novels, there is no sense of an author finding his feet. His trademark over the top violence is here, along with casual music references and a thrilling denouement that more regular readers will have come to expect.

If you’ve never read the Harry Hole series before, this is now the key place to start; yet, if you’ve read the rest of the series, The Bat will fill in enough detail in Harry’s backstory to be necessary in its own right.

Nesbo’s second book in the series Cockroaches has since been published, so the Harry Hole saga is now complete!

Are there any other Harry Hole fans out there?

 

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Number Read: 156

Number Remaining: 590

No 695 Phantom by Jo Nesbø

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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’).

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You’re welcome ladies! (Photograph: Francesco Guidicini)

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 🙂

 

Number Read: 52

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Number Remaining: 694

 

Marching Through, No 731 – 729

March Madness has taken hold, so here are the last three books I’ve read in my quest to read 10 books this month. 4 to go, fingers crossed!

No 731 Camilla Lackberg The Ice Princess

ice princessReturning to her hometown after the funeral of her parents, writer Erica Falck finds her childhood community fractured. Her childhood friend, Alex, has apparently committed suicide, her wrists slashed, her body frozen in an ice cold bath. Erica decides to write a memoir about the beautiful but remote Alex, one that will answer questions about their lost friendship. At the same time, local detective Patrik Hedstrom is following his own theories about the case. As they come together both personally and professionally, the truth begins to emerge about the small town they all grew up in and its secrets surface.

With issues of child abuse, the sordidness of the wealthy and small town secrets, this is a readable but pretty formulaic crime novel. The mystery itself is compelling enough, giving up its secrets at a steady pace, with a decent enough ‘reveal’. The two lead characters are likeable, normal and ultimately believable, no alcoholic old codgers here.

BUT, I had a couple of issues with The Ice Princess. While Erica and Patrick are well drawn and appealing, the same can’t be said for, well, any other character in the book. The women are all beautiful creatures, existing mainly to be victims (the young characters), nags (the older women) or manipulators (the wealthy ones) while the men are universally nasty – abusers, bullies or drunkards. It makes you yearn for someone a little more complex to root for, a Harry Hole or a Lisbeth Salander.

The plotting of the novel is also problematic, mainly because Lackberg has a habit of having her characters uncover some dramatic evidence (which is generally lying around or exactly where they look for it) and then……not telling the reader anything about it for another 50 pages or so. If it happened once, I might forgive it, but it happens several times and is blatant and clumsy, throwing the pacing off and making nonsense of the plot in between. There are also several plot lines that are either fulfilled for no good reason (the caretaker who makes a midnight flit to Spain) or not fulfilled at all (the domestic abuse of Erica’s sister Anna). I realise though, that this is the first in a series of books, so these may well be examined in later books.

I won’t find out though as I have no more Lackberg in the 746.

If you fancy reading the series, the lovely Cleopatra Loves Books has details on the other books in her blog post here.

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Number Read:  16

Number Read March Madness: 4/10

Number Remaining: 730

No 730 This is Water by David Foster Wallace

WaterDavid Foster Wallace gave this address to students passing out from of Kenyon College in Ohio in May 2005, three years before the author hanged himself at his home this September, aged 46.  The title, This is Water, is taken from the speech, in which Wallace tells the anecdote of two young fish who meet an older fish, who asks them “how’s the water?” They swim on, and eventually one of them asks the other, “what the hell is water?”

This pointedly observant examination of everyday life does nothing more than ask us to take responsibility for our own reactions to what happens in our daily lives. How we perceive what we experience is essential to our happiness and our sense of worth and well being.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

If you have a spare 22mins and 44 secs, you can watch the speech here . It may have only taken me about a half hour to read, but I think it’s something I’ll come back to again and again, just to remind myself of why I’m here and what is important.

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Number Read: 17

Number Read March Madness: 5/10

Number Remaining: 729

No 729 The Seven Days of Peter Crumb by Jonny Glynn

Peter CrumbPeter Crumb is a man whose life has been overturned by a single, devastating act of violence in his past. Now, in what he intends to be his last week on Earth, he is determined to leave his mark upon humanity – randomly, unjustly, with infinite attention to detail.

Billed as the British American Psycho, The Seven Days of Peter Crumb certainly echoes that book in its depiction of a disturbing, gruesome and repulsive psychopath, but it lacks the polish and distance of Bret Easton Ellis’s classic without lacking the emotional punch.

If you don’t like violence, don’t read this book. The first 50 pages contain a rape and three pretty descriptive murders and that’s just for starters, yet Glynn avoids the potential for mere sadistic gratuity by presenting an absorbing stream of consciousness where Peter and his alter ego battle for control in a mind that is utterly fractured.

Where Glynn succeeds is in giving us glimpses of a time when Peter Crumb was a normal, functioning member of society, a husband, a father. He is not simply a one-dimensional psycho killer but a damaged man. A nasty, frightening, deplorable man, but one all the same, who has his own moral code even when decapitating an unfortunate hotel receptionist.

I can understand readers hating this book. At several points I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep reading, but I was transfixed by this gruesome, but intriguing trip into a mind ravaged by mental illness.

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Number Read: 18

Number Read March Madness: 6/10

Number Remaining: 728