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)

My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey

This 2003 work begins as a fascinating tale, and then becomes a confusing one. Because it has narrators within narrators, and then stories within stories within stories—and compounds this by skipping about among different time frames, from World War II on. It begins as a tale in modern times narrated by a poetry magazine editor named Sarah. She is lured to Malaysia by a family friend, John Slater, whom she despises because of his pretense as a poet and because she thinks he was involved in the death of her mother. So one expects the novel to be driven by that relationship.

But this is Peter Carey, who loves devious plotting. In Malaysia, Sarah encounters Christopher Chubb, an Australian poet who in the past has fabricated a hoax by creating an elaborate, pretentious poem by a man named McCorkle. This poem is published in an Australian poetry magazine, but when the hoax is revealed, Weiss, the magazine editor, is tried for obscenity and later mysteriously dies.

This is the set-up, and we later learn that the plot is based on a real episode in Australian literary history. And it is here, one-third into the novel, that the complications begin. Chubb shows Sarah a page from a new work of poetry by McCorkle, and she is intent on getting the full manuscript for her magazine, not initially sure if it has been written by Chubb or by McCorkle. Ah, the complexity that Carey loves. For McCorkle turns out to be real, a huge person, and he has meanwhile kidnapped Chubb’s daughter, apparently in revenge for the hoax, and taken her off into the jungle. This is the daughter of an ambitious beautiful woman, Nousette, an artist and photographer who befriends both Chubb and Slater, and fathers a daughter by one of them, a daughter she gives up to Chubb and so he assumes is his.

Whereupon Chubb pursues McCorkle to repossess his daughter, but on finding them his daughter initially rejects him. In the jungle, however, this McCorkle has produced a marvelous journal of poetry that impresses Chubb, and when he returns he teasingly offers it to Sarah. Thus the confusing time frames, and this is when my real confusion began.

Is the McCorkle who first shows up at the Weiss trial this real person in the jungle? How did he become a writer? Is this a bit of magic realism? Or is he not real, still the figment of Chubb’s imagination? For example, when McCorkle steals the baby daughter, he says that Chubb never gave him a childhood, and that there are consequences to creating him, McCorkle. Which development is reflected in the Mary Shelley Frankenstein quotation at the start of the novel: “the miserable monster whom I had created.”

In any event, Chubb pursues them into the jungle to recover his daughter. Of course, we know this pursuit only through Chubb’s narration to Sarah, and these events are scattered through the novel. In any event, we ask ourselves, how much is really true? And then, when Chubb discovers this unknown marvelous work in the jungle, we wonder if McCorkle is really the writer. The McCorkle created by Chubb. And, finally, there are the two women Chubb is living with in the more recent world, one a scarred Chinese woman, while the other turns out to be the beautiful grown-up daughter, Tina—both of whom will be present at the violent end.

Indeed, I had to skim this novel again to understand the ending, to realize the love of these two women for McCorkle rather than Chubb, and their identification with the volume of poetry that McCorkle has produced in the jungle and they have brought back to the capital. It is actually a simple tale, but it has been made quite complex by the telling. Which many an author uses to create interest and suspense in a simple tale. Except, here, it has been too complex an approach for me, and the tale a too simple one of literary deceit.

That is, this is another tale that explores what is real and what is not real. Except, it is the not real, the poetry, the literary work, that is being explored for its reality. It also explores truth and lies, not just the hoax, but the plot as well. And it explores justice, as well, in the fate of Chubb, McCorkle, and the Australian poetry editor Weiss.

Plus, many of the characters are just pretending as they deal with each other. Slater is pretending to Sarah to get her to Malaysia. We later learn that Sarah’s father pretended to Sara about the death of her mother. (And that her father pretended not to be a homosexual, as Sarah has done as well.) And now in Malaysia, Sarah is pretending to Chubb in order to get the hidden manuscript, while Chubb is initially pretending to Sarah that he has access to it. McCorkle is pretending also, for he calls his hidden work My Life as a Fake. Even author Carey is pretending that he is writing a thriller when he is really writing about hoaxes and the prevalence of pretending in the literary world.

This has not been a satisfying novel, but its provocative situation has prompted me to read it to find out what is going on. And the pace is certainly there, and the revelations, to draw the reader on. Further Carey is not a must, but a provocative situation like this could well draw me into future work, as they have done in the past, such as with Oscar and Maggs. (March, 2016)

Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith

This 2010 work is a disappointment. Cruz Smith still has his novelistic skills, but he reaches here too high in terms of a mystery story.  That is, there is still the marvelous atmosphere of Moscow, the Russian environment, and the Russian people, especially Arkady Renko, his hero detective. And he has set up two intriguing stories, and some intriguing relationships. But the stories never come together, the criminal intrigue is too complex, and the resolution comes after a car chase, meaning with  too sudden a burst of action.

The first story is about a prostitute, Maya, fleeing to Moscow with her newborn baby, and then distraught because her baby has been stolen. The second is the mysterious death of a ballet dancer in a construction trailer, her body left to suggest she was a prostitute. Arkady’s renegade foster son, Zhenya, becomes involved with Maya, trying to help her. And Arkady himself is suspicious of the ballet dancer’s death, with his efforts to determine if it is suicide or murder increasing his conflict with his boss Zurin, and resulting in his being suspended. (And not the first time.)

The action for theses two stories occurs mainly around the Three Stations in Moscow, where train and bus lines come together, and where the poor and criminal elements congregate to prey on others. And these underground people complicate the story when they come into possession of the baby. In fact, we are sidetracked from both Maya’s and Arkady’s stories every so often, in order to check out what is happening to the baby. (Not to mention the violent deaths these underground people suffer when they unwittingly disturb the local drug trade.)

For perhaps two thirds of this book, however, I was fascinated by the Russian atmosphere; the critique of modern, capitalist Russia; Arkady’s problems with his bosses; the conflicts within both the law enforcement officials and the criminal rings; the mysterious billionaire, Vaksberg, who seems to be running a charity event; the ballet company which seems to be hiding something; and Arkady’s young neighbor, Anya, a journalist, who is violently assaulted in the same way the ballet dancer was.

But as I realized the end of the book was approaching and a resolution was needed for all these developments, and as Arkady seemed to be no closer to the facts (plus, the author had left behind Zhenya’s concern for Maya, as well as Maya herself), I became restless. And soon after that the violence begins, with physical attacks on Arkady and a car chase, ending with an accusation of guilt that, despite only circumstantial evidence, is quickly confessed to.

I cannot deny the reading pleasure offered by the first two-thirds of this book. Yet it is as if Cruz Smith has dug himself into an intriguing narrative hole that he cannot dig himself out of. And this makes one suspicious that the author may have lost some of his technical ability to tie together disparate story lines.

Which suggests that future works may be fun to read, even enlightening, but that they will lack the sense of unity required for literary success—and negate any suggestion that in his future work Cruz Smith may take the next step in creating a true novel. (December, 2013)