My friend JC introduced me to Jo Nesbo’s books. Nesbo is the most accessible of the Scandinavian mystery writers, and there are at least seven books featuring his detective Harry Hole (we would probably pronounce it “Holy”).
Nebro introduced his eccentric, brilliant alcoholic detective as a “fish out of water” in the first book, The Bat. Harry comes to Australia from Norway to investigate the death of a Norwegian woman, and discovers a serial killer. The rest of the series is set mostly in Norway and northern Europe.
I’ve read three, and it turns out I’ve skipped around, but at least I’ve moving forward chronologically. In The Redbreast, Harry shoots and wounds an American Secret Service agent who is out of position during an American presidential visit to Norway. In a darkly humorous stratagem, instead of firing him, the brass decide to make him a hero. They promote him to Inspector. Soon he is investigating a murder with tendrils that lead to neo-Nazi groups and arms smugglers.
The Redbreast moves back and forth in time, following a group of young Norwegian soldiers who are fighting in the German army against the Russians in the 1940s. Norway’s history during World War II is complicated. Their king and royal family fled to England, and, safely there, sent back patriotic and reassuring messages via radio addresses. Many people supported Hitler because they saw him as protection against a greater threat – Joseph Stalin. When the war was over, Norway tried and imprisoned a number of people for collaborating with Germany. Harry (like the author) views this with a somewhat jaundiced eye; thinking a government that did nothing to protect its people is a perhaps slightly hypocritical for prosecuting those who tried to do something.
This does not mean that Harry thinks Norwegian neo-Nazis are right. The racism and hatred of the group angers him. His mistrust and disgust with the group puts him at odds with another policeman, one Harry believes has Nazi sympathies (as do many of the characters we meet in the course of the book). Harry doesn’t play by the rules, and this doesn’t just mean that he oversteps in investigations or hurries off without backup in the time-honored American tradition. Harry, a dedicated alcoholic, shows up to work under the influence; he disappears on binges for weeks, usually after the culmination of a case. He keeps his job because he is protected by his superior. In The Redbreast, I wasn’t clear exactly why, nor did I understand why Harry is treated with such suspicion by his colleagues, except for the drinking thing. A later book cleared some of that up for me; Harry’s workplace is riddled with corruption, and not small time corruption, either. There is almost no one he can trust. His inconsistent behavior means that there is almost no one who can trust him.
Nesbo’s depiction of women is interesting and I don’t know if it represents Norway, noir, or both. Both on and off the police force, women characters are strong, smart and dedicated. They are also almost always the victims of discrimination, sexual harassment both verbal and physical, and sexual coercion. Older men, men in power, view professional women as sexual targets. Nesbo presents this as part and parcel of the corruption that infects government.
Nesbo drifted into Bonanza Bride Syndrome for a while (Harry loves her; she dies), but I am pleased to report that Harry’s love interest in The Redbreast is still alive at the end of the book. This is a great step forward! Of course, she has a child… that may buy her a free pass.
I just finished The Devil’s Star, in which Harry matches wits with another serial killer. A bit more is explained about Harry’s past, and the environment in which he works. And we see a bit more about Harry, in dark and funny moments, like the one where he and a suspect, trapped and waiting for the killer to show up, spend time trying to list all the Iggy Pop songs that begin with the letter “C.”
With Steig Larsson, US publishers “discovered” Scandinavian crime writers. You can find half-a dozen of them on the shelves in the mystery section. With Nesbo, you will find a character who lingers in the memory as a real, if wounded, person.