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)

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

This 2011 work is an outstanding mystery, one of Connelly’s best. Harry Bosch is approaching mandated retirement as a cop, and he is given two cases. The two cases are not connected, and they never overlap. But what they both do is examine the idea of justice. From almost opposite directions. They ask what are the ends that justify the means of administering justice. And in one case, the reader leans toward the justice thwarted rather than the justice achieved. And in the other, he leans toward the justice achieved rather than the justice compromised.

The novel works because of the complexity of both cases, but it also works because Bosch is fully human. He is a cop, but he has a personal life that begins with his 15-year-old daughter, Maddie; and he often stops his investigations—as Connelly stops his fast pace—to interact with her. Their conversations may last less than a page, but we see what a good father and a good person he is. Bosch is also a widower, and lonely; and when he meets an attractive therapist, Hannah Stone, on one of the cases, both he and the reader hope she will be able to fill the emotional side of his life. In fact, even his daughter wishes so. Meanwhile, in his professional life, Bosch has an interesting, changing relationship with his partner, Chu, who both helps him and betrays him. Chu himself is also interesting, as he has his own issues, and resents this boss who never confides in him.

The Drop is aptly titled. DROP stands, conveniently, for Bosch’s status in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. Plus, one case he is handling concerns whether George Irving, a man who has dropped from a hotel balcony, has died as a result of a murder, a suicide, or an accident. And why does his powerful politician father Irvin Irving, an anti-police nemesis of Bosch, ask Bosch of all people to handle a case which involves the death of his son?

The other case involves a rape and murder from the past that went unsolved, and had been dropped by the police. Now, it has resurfaced in the LA police department’s Open-Unsolved Unit, where Bosch works, after new DNA evidence has been discovered. Plus, there are also occasions when Bosch is being encouraged to drop each of these two cases.

Connelly spends more time on the first case, in which the prominent politician demands that Bosch find the truth about his son’s death from the hotel balcony. The case brings Bosch into the continual contact with the politics and justice practiced in Los Angeles, and offers the reader frequent insights into the interactions among citizens, the police, politicians, and judges. This case revolves around the son using his father’s political connections to curry favors for his clients. Bosch learns that the son’s situation is more complicated than that, however, and as he explores the son’s connections with politics, the police, and his family, the detective leans toward different explanations of his death. This is what builds the suspense, as the reader is also turned in one direction and then in another.

The rape and murder case is complicated by the fact that the blood on the victim’s body belongs to an eight-year-old child, Clayton Pell, who is now an adult. He could not have committed the rape and murder, of course, at eight years old. Then who did? Bosch uses logic and his powers of investigation to find out, but then the boy emerges as a mayor player as he both emerges as a criminal himself and seeks his own kind of justice. This dark side of society is leavened, however, by Bosch’s romance with the boy’s therapist; and yet at the same time it is complicated by the boy’s evolution into a man whose adult transgressions have been formed by his rough early life. So, when do we sympathize with Clayton Pell, and when do we not? Connolly loves these emotional conflicts, these ironies, and his work is all the stronger for it.

After these two fascinating, complicated cases, it is the book’s ending that helps it to end on a strong point, one that points to the irony and complexity of justice. For it suggests that one guilty man may not be so guilty, after all. And that the department Bosch is so dedicated to appears to have its own kind of guilt.

And so, one wonders how cynical Bosch will remain in Connelly’s next book. Will he be further disillusioned by the police corruption that he terms “high jingo”? Or will he soften, as he shares his heart with someone besides his daughter? No, he has to remain the hard-boiled cynic, even as he remains a needy person. Perhaps, in fact, the cynicism is to shield him from that neediness. On the other hand, maybe the world around him will be lightened by either Hannah or future characters. We shall see. All I know is that this novel has certainly interested me in more of Connelly’s work. (October, 2016)

The Whites, by Harry Brandt (Richard Price)

This multi-level mystery novel from 2015 is true literature in every sense. It begins as a police procedural that establishes the bono fides of Billy Graves, a side-tracked police sergeant now assigned to the Night Watch in Manhattan. It is also a portrait of a once-heralded police team, the Wild Geese, whose members still love and support each other, even after some have left the force.

Interwoven also is the story of Milton Ramos, a renegade cop out to extract revenge for the personal injustices which life has dealt him. The ending, moreover, relies on a solution that is a classic of the mystery genre, and then humanizes that solution. And, finally, helping this work to a truly literary level is the moral issue raised by that solution in the minds and souls of characters whom both we as readers and Billy himself have become comfortable with.

The novel works on all levels. We are especially close to Billy and his wife Carmen, both of whom have endured tragedy in their past. They both love each other and are protective of each other. And Billy also remains especially close to four former policemen who were members of the Wild Geese. There is Pavlicek, now a real estate baron; Redman, now a funeral director; Whelan, now a building superintendent; and Yasmeen, now a campus security chief. Each will play a key role in this novel, as well as exemplify the ties of police brotherhood.

The title, The Whites, refers to the criminals the police have pursued obsessively but have failed to catch, not unlike the white whale that Ahab pursued. It is an ironic designation in terms of color (not race), but it also reflects the complexity of police duty and the frequent moral issues that are raised. The basic moral issue raised here is: should the guilty be punished? But also, should the past be forgotten? And: what is the nature of true justice, and who has the right to deliver that justice? It is a moral issue that is examined in all great literature, and here Price as Brandt is reaching for those heights—and achieving them.

But morality does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the actions of human beings; and these human beings, in literature, need to exist in a specific world. In this case it is the island of Manhattan, yes, but it is also Manhattan at night, and even more significant it is the felony crime scene in Manhattan at night and the human beings responsible for catching the criminals in the name of justice. This is why the policemen are the prime movers of this novel, and why Price as Brandt has made such an effort to show us the cruelty that they confront, the frustration they often feel, and the camaraderie that keeps them going.

This camaraderie, indeed, is a key element of this novel, both for the resulting interaction it causes and for the humanization it brings to men whose blue uniform often makes all of them seem alike. As Kakutani writes in the Times: [Brandt’s] “ability to map his characters’ inner lives—all the dreams and memories and wounds that make them tick—results in people who become as vivid to us as real-life relatives or friends.”

And Billy Graves is the first to have any vulnerabilities. His police career was detoured before the start of this novel, when a bullet he fired at a criminal hit an innocent boy, and he became fodder for the tabloid press. This resulted in initial assignments to dead-end posts; but he has finally earned recognition, and been placed in charge of the Night Watch. However, his private life is also in travail, because his first wife had abandoned him after the shooting scandal and left him with two young sons. Now, he is married to Carmen, a nurse and a temperamental woman whom he loves but does not always understand.

And while we realize that Billy is a good man at heart, we begin reading about another cop, Milton Ramos, who also lost a wife and is left with a young daughter. But he reacts to his unfortunate situation very differently from how Billy does, and seeks revenge on someone for some unknown reason. And we sense he will confront Billy at the novel’s climax. As we follow Billy through his routine investigations, however, and watch as a new and violent crime confronts him with memories of his past, with his own white—and also reunites him with his colleagues of the past—this building confrontation with Ramos moves from the background to the foreground, drawing the reader into this novel even more, although we do not know what will prompt the climactic confrontation.

What is not clear to me is why Price chose a pseudonym for this novel. Is it to be part of a series? Is it the police aspect that makes it different from his other works? He dedicates it, in part, to a Carl Brandt. Is that a family member or a friend, perhaps a policeman, whom he wishes to recognize? Perhaps the most reasonable difference to be found in this novel is that it does not focus on a specific location in sociological terms, as in his previous novels, but rather on individuals in psychological terms. But why would this shift prompt him to use a pen name? In any event, the reason does not really matter.

This reader will continue to pursue the work of Richard Price. While he has his dedicated followers, his work has thus fear not entered the contemporary literary canon. Perhaps because of his subject matter, the underside, the criminal side, of daily life. But the underdogs of his novels—victims, pursuers, and perpetrators—are worthy subjects that we in our comfortable reading chairs tend to forget. And Price stands out because he portrays these people, even the most villainous, like Ramos here, as human beings. And he helps us realize that there are often reasons why they are what they are. (March, 2016)