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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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 🙂

 

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No: 739 The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

This post contains spoilers. ..

And spoilers about spoilers. ..

In the first paragraph…

 I’m serious. If you haven’t read the Wallander series;  if you’re planning to read the Wallander series;  if you haven’t read this, the tenth and final book in the Wallander series; or if you are half way through The Troubled Man, stop reading now.

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The reason for the emphasis on spoilers?

Well, I was this far through The Troubled Man:

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 when I went to hear Jo Nesbo in conversation at the Ulster Hall in Belfast last year. I do so love my Nordi Noir. During a Q&A session at this event, an unthinking idiot sorry, helpful man in the audience asked if Jo Nesbo knew how things were going to end for his detective Harry Hole and if he planned to kill him off the way Mankell had just done to Wallander. A groan echoed through the hall, probably led by me as loads of Mankell readers had the end of the series spoiled for them in one fell swoop. So, I stopped reading the book. It sat and sat for so long that I considered it abandoned. Then last week, I heard the news reports that Henning Mankell had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and something about that made me want to follow Kurt to the end. And what a swift end it is.

No shoot outs here, no dramatic falls or lingering death scenes. Just six short lines tell us that

‘Kurt Wallander slowly descended into a darkness that that some years later transported him into the empty universe known as Alzheimer’s disease. After that there is nothing more. The story of Kurt Wallander is finished, once and for all.’

Mankell has a reputation for being, well, curt, but that is one abrupt end to a series of books that lit the touch paper on Scandanavian crime and let Nesbo and Larsson burn bright across the publishing world.

So, what of the book itself?

On a winter day in 2008, Håkan von Enke, a retired high-ranking naval officer, vanishes during his daily walk in a forest near Stockholm. The investigation into his disappearance has nothing to do with Wallander — officially. But von Enke is his daughter’s future father-in-law. And, as usual, Wallander is soon interfering in a case he should probably leave well alone. What follows is a mixture of a Swedish naval history and a cold war spy thriller as Kurt tries to explain the disappearance of his future in-laws.

Is von Enke the Troubled Man of the title? Or is it Kurt? Our brusque, gloomy police inspector can be pretty downbeat at the best of times, but this novel follows him battling his own problems:  loneliness, ballooning weight, diabetes, insomnia, the alcoholism of his former wife, the sudden death by cancer of a former lover and, most disturbingly, sudden and complete losses of memory which terrify him so much that he hasn’t the nerve to consult a doctor. Wallander becomes the symbol of the slow decay of Swedish society reflected in the deterioration of his own body, mental health and morale. His inner turmoil drives the procedural, there is a lot of looking back, taking stock. In one episode Kurt visits a churchyard where he carved his initials in a wall as a child,

‘He closed his eyes and thought he could hear his own childhood voice echoing inside his head, sounding like it did when it was cracking and he was troubled by everything the adult world stood for. Maybe this is where I should be buried when the time comes, he thought. Return to the beginning…’

The book as a whole feels like a farewell and the mental state of Wallander is it’s prime concern. Which is probably for the best because as crime fiction, it is not actually that satisfying. The pace of Mankell’s book are always slow, but this is funereal. The plot is dense, but many loose ends are left untied, characters motives left vague and the resolution is well, pretty unresolved. The holes in the plot echo the holes in Wallander’s memory and maybe this is intentional but it makes the book less than the sum of its parts. This is maybe why I abandoned it so easily in the first place, yet, as an ending to a remarkable series, it feels like a fitting way to lay the unforgettable Kurt Wallander to rest.

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Henning Mankell with Wallander actor Krister Henrikkson

The news of Mankell’s illness also hung like a cloud over this book. I know he has written other fiction but his creation of an iconic character is most probably his legacy.

“I haven’t spend a lot of time thinking about what will be left of me,” Mankell said recently in an interview with The Guardian, “If you think of how many writers and artists you remember from 50 years back – it is so few. I think I have written a couple of novels that will survive, but no one knows, and all we can do is work and participate in the time in which we happen to live. I have a bridge named after me in northern Sweden, which is wonderful, but I won’t be around to worry about whether I am remembered.”

10 books, 3 different television adaptations and the towering figure in Scandinavian crime fiction? I don’t think Mankell has to worry about not being remembered…

 

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