Phantom, by Jo Nesbo

This is a long, complex crime novel from 2011 that offers many dramatic scenes to offset a complicated plot that is often difficult to follow. Nesbo’s hero is again Harry Hole, an out-of-favor ex-policeman who becomes involved in the drug wars of Oslo when his illegitimate son, Oleg, is charged with the murder of a friend. Estranged from his son and his son’s mother, Rakel, both of whom he loves, he cannot help but investigate what happened.

The complexity begins with the reader’s discovery that some of the policemen Harry knows have been co-opted by a drug baron, resulting in a confusing perception by both Harry and the reader of the true motives of many of his former colleagues. Such as “burners,” policemen who are convinced to destroy evidence against the drug cartel. There is further complexity when the friend, Gusto, that Oleg is charged with killing begins relating his final moments as he is about to die. Which adds suspense to the story, but also seems somewhat artificial, since we first encounter him at the brink of death and then he backtracks his story to reveal what led up to his death.

Nesbo knows how to create such suspense. Whether with chase scenes, shifting motives, our changing perception of a character, violent confrontations, or methods for escaping from death. Except, some of the confrontations seem to end arbitrarily. Such as when the former alcoholic Harry escapes from drowning by sucking air out of an empty liquor bottle—well, that’s reality, and irony, stretched to its limits.

In this novel, Nesbo is dealing with a drug baron; a pedestrian policeman and his friend about to become the chief; a political seductress; a kidnapped girl and two of her brothers; a hired killer; Harry’s girlfriend and a lawyer who loves her; and a pharmacist who creates the special drug called violin, the cause of drug warfare and police corruption. Throughout the novel, Harry’s view of many of them changes, and so does the reader’s, especially regarding their involvement in the initial murder of Gusto. That is, who actually killed him? And, at the end, he suggests the future or the fate of each of these characters, although they are not neatly connected with each other.

But their fates do often seem arbitrary, beginning with Harry’s and ending with the identity of the actual killer. The latter becomes the least suspected person that all authors seek, and it, too, seems somewhat arbitrary. Especially when the actual murder is in some ways not a murder. There is a certain cynicism to this solution, but one has to grant that it is appropriate for a crime noir such as this. And even to the character of the killer.

What makes is novel work, beyond the continual confrontations, the deceptive shifting of suspicion, and the constant suspense is the character of Oslo and the character of Harry Hole. The dark side of the city and its corruption is perfectly suited to the noir atmosphere of this story. And Harry being an introvert continually makes him a distinctive character. For he is insecure about his ability to make a personal commitment, about his own worthiness to be loved, about the personal failings of his past, and he possesses a certain fatalism. As a result, however, we are more fascinated by him than willing to identify with him.

Some reviewers have been critical of the rat scenes that open the book, appear regularly, and nearly close the book. They certainly reflect the noir environment that Nesbo has created, but he uses them at the end to hint, to suggest, that a major character may not have died, after all. Which is an admirable purpose, I suppose, but it does undercut the impact of one of the final dramatic scenes. It seems to be a case of the author wanting to have his cake and eating it, too.

Nesbo himself acknowledged in an interview how he creates suspense in his crime novels, by shifting suspicion from one character to another, as he does here: “It’s like being a magician onstage. You are supposed to manipulate your readers. You are supposed to make them look at your right hand while you are doing a trick with your left. That sort of contract makes for a more intimate way of storytelling.”

Nesbo also says that after each book he gets tired of being with Harry “because it’s a very dark place to be.” Which perhaps partially explains the ending of this novel. But as a reader who has read only two of these novels, I am not tired of Harry myself. And I am particularly intrigued by the noir setting, the Oslo setting, and the Norwegian culture. So I look forward to more of Nesbo. (April, 2017)

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo

The popularity of this Norwegian mystery writer has been growing, and I was curious to learn what it was all about. I can now understand that popularity, although this early 2002 work did not impress me that much with its story—a prime reason being that the complicated events were difficult to follow. Why was this? One reason is that the characters were not clearly delineated, neither the policemen nor the suspects, villains, and victims. Nor did their interactions help distinguish themselves from one other. But what did impress me was the texture of the writing, the setting of the scenes, and the constant action moving ahead.

The novel begins as a story of two crimes, that of a bank robbery and a murder and that of a death that suggests suicide but may be murder. The bank robbery that opens the book results in the death of a woman teller, and the suspicion that the killer and the victim knew each other. Meanwhile, a young woman is found shot to death, with a gun in the wrong hand. She is a former girlfriend of Nesbo’s series detective, Harry Hole. He had spent the previous night with her but cannot remember what happened.

The result is a series of complicated developments that are difficult to follow, not least because the author keeps shifting his focus: from one crime to the other and from one suspicious activity to another. But also, as I said, because the characters serve more the functions of the plot than come alive on the page. And their shifting motivations are complicated as well. They involve love affairs, jealousy, rage, revenge, the rivalry of brothers, and gypsy culture.

We follow the story mainly through Harry Hole’s efforts to clear himself from suspicion of murder. He duels with a fellow cop who wants to pin the murder on him, negotiates with a gypsy prisoner to find the girl’s actual killer, and receives teasing emails from the girl’s presumed murderer, who intensifies his own sense of guilt. The result is a complexity that keeps the reader off-balance, which promotes the book’s intrigue but can be confusing, as Harry shifts from one concern to another, and from one crime to another.

For a long while, it is not clear which crime is intended to be dominant. The bank robbery and murder that begins the tale, or the girl’s murder that implicates Harry. More time is spent with the latter, which hits closer to Harry’s home, but the former has international implications that prompt a visit to Brazil. While the solutions never come together, their themes, their motivations, do in many ways. There is brotherly conflict, there is betrayal in love, and there is authorial misdirection. Indeed, the solution to the girl’s death, while intended as a big surprise, is for me too much of a twist that betrays the author’s hand. I was unprepared, and therefore somewhat reluctant to accept it.

As Marilyn Stasio writes in the Times: “Nesbo falls back on coincidence and some other questionable devices. The problem isn’t that he fails to tie up all his story lines, it’s that he does it so carefully and neatly that the plot machinery is revealed for what it is— machinery.” Perhaps the novel’s length of around 500 pages has also been necessary to develop this complicated machinery. And so winding it down somewhat succinctly at the end lends a sense of arbitrariness.

Nemesis is the Greek god of justice and revenge. Thus, the title, for each major death is motivated by revenge. But one senses the author has backed into this theme, or at least the title. As if to make the execution fit the crime. But while these solutions reflect a psychological depth, they do not rise out of character depth. They seem to have been pasted in by the author to fit the facts.

And yet, there is enough depth here, enough intriguing plotting, enough Norwegian atmosphere, enough interesting series characters to prompt interest in more of Nesbo. As a series hero, Harry Hole offers distinct, if familiar, possibilities. He is moody, rebellious and hot-headed, tends to drink heavily, and likes to act alone; but he is also one whom other policemen respect, and whose superiors also accept, because of his incisive detective skills.

Among the interesting police characters are Beate Lonn, a new female recruit who seems innocent in the ways of the world, but who can remember faces and whose interaction with Harry offers possibilities; and Inspector Waaler, who dislikes Harry, and is out to pin a murder on him. The other police officials, however, such as Halvorson, Moller, Ivarsson, and Weber are mainly supernumeries who serve a purpose rather than exist as real characters. As is psychologist Stale Aune, whose discussions with Harry serve primarily to give psychological depth and psychological possibilities to the actions of the more suspicious characters.

Yes, I will read more of Nesbo. But I would hope he explores more deeply Harry’s relationships with his fellow policemen. That he avoids fictional complexity in favor of psychological or political complexity. And that he sharpens his focus by digging into the heart of a single criminal activity. Whereupon, the Oslo setting and/or the darker Norwegian atmosphere and culture will also become a plus. (November, 2016)