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Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

April 21, 2014 4 comments

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Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) sees a publisher finally translating and releasing one of the early Harry Hole novels. For the record, this is the second in the series but the last to be translated into English. It follows on from his exploits in Australia. For those of you new to the series, he’s the detective with a brain who has looked into the abyss. Needless to say, neither side of this exchange of view was enamored, so Harry has decided to seek oblivion through alcohol. This does not, of course, lead to his dismissal from the police force. Those that matter in the hierarchy understand the circumstances and, from time to time, there’s a need for a man like this. In this instance, the need arises in Bangkok (a city providing all the temptations likely to attract the addicted and the dangerous). The Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found with a knife in his back in a brothel. This could be deeply embarrassing to the ruling party in Norway so a cover-up is in order. A little research suggests Harry may not emerge from the bottle long enough to do any lasting damage. The local Thai authorities are also keen to minimise the media interest. It might damage their tourism trade if it were to be suggested a knife-wielding killer was lurking in a brothel, massage parlour or one of the many other venues where sexual gratification for money may be obtained.

To help ensure the investigation is less than successful, the Thai authorities designate a woman and a farang to liaise. She’s the daughter of an American officer and a local woman who has returned to Thailand. It’s not the gender itself that’s likely to be a problem. Local Thais tend not to be impressed by foreigners. So even though she speaks the language like a native, the lines of communication are not going to work so well. The only thing going in her favour from Harry’s point of view is that she’s not as corrupt as the majority of the local police force — it’s an economic problem with the government not paying those employed to enforce the law enough to live on. So most take money not to enforce the law.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

As murders go, this looks reasonably straightforward: man found dead in brothel by the prostitute sent to service him. While not an everyday crime, there’s always a dangerous edge to using the services of the sex industry. Prostitutes or their pimps roll clients for their passports, credit cards and cash. Muggers and robbers steal whatever’s left. Mostly the clients live to tell the tale. Sometimes they fight back when they should know better and pay the price. Yet this is an ambassador. More to the point, he’s independently wealthy so need never go this low down in the market. Although perhaps that’s the point. Maybe a part of the excitement comes from entering the demimonde. Except there are some photographs in his briefcase (what man takes his briefcase with him when he goes to a brothel?). They show a paedophile with a boy. The photographer was using a long lens and did not capture the man’s face. So perhaps the ambassador was meeting someone to blackmail. But if the motive was blackmail, why didn’t the killer take the photographs? Even on the initial survey, there are some unusual factors. Once the investigation goes through the standard moves, the unanswered questions multiply. This should lead to the whitewash both government want. With no obvious way to answer all these questions, the case should be closed and Harry should go home.

But Harry never has been one for following orders and, as he dries out in the heat of Bangkok, he begins to understand the force of the old joke, “When a cockroach dies, one-hundred turn up at the funeral.” In this case, Harry’s crude hacking at the walls of silence around him, encourages a number of creatures to crawl out into the daylight. The only two problems are which might be the killer(s) he’s looking for and can he avoid being killed by those that resent being disturbed? It proves to be a highly detailed plot with a very nicely arranged diversionary tactic in play. Unfortunately, we also get the traditionally seamy view of Thailand as a tourist destination. Although most of the information is necessarily subordinated to the need to keep the plot going, it’s a clichéd overview with few pleasing touches of local colour to bring the setting to life. That the corruption also extends back to Norway should not surprise us. The politics swirling around this murder endangers reputations in both countries. Naturally, once he’s sobered up, Harry is just the man you need to get to the truth of the matter. What then happens is predictable as the news is massaged. Ironically, for all Harry produces a clear-cut ending, the cover-up more or less stays in place. Life goes on and Harry can resume his search for oblivion.

Since I enjoy reading clever books with a darker edge, Cockroaches appeals to me. There’s a rather satisfying coldblooded quality to the planning and execution of the crimes on display. It doesn’t matter how realistic the events may be. The intellectual rigour of the plot makes the book worth reading. From the little I’ve said, you’ll understand the themes explored are not for the faint-hearted. But, for the most part, the book is not explicit. It should not offend while asking pertinent questions about the weaknesses some humans have.

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
The Bat
Police
The Son.
There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Police by Jo Nesbø

January 24, 2014 1 comment

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Police by Jo Nesbø (Alfred A Knopf, 2013) (translated by Dan Bartlett) is Harry Hole’s tenth outing and it starts with our hero missing. It’s perhaps not inappropriate to remind people that Harry was shot at the end of Phantom, the last book. Obviously, unless we’re suddenly to veer into the territory occupied by “detectives” who have crossed over and now guide investigations from beyond, we’re forced to assume our hero will turn up sooner or later. This is a rather pleasing coup de théâtre. The absence reminds us that no-one is indispensable. The world continues to turn and things still get done even though the “key person” is AWOL. And so it proves here. The remnants of the Boiler Room team actually make reasonably good progress on their own. Except, of course, that progress is not enough on its own in such a high-profile and complicated case. So, in the end, the team is forced to rely on its hole card (sorry, I’ve been waiting to write that for years) to win the pot and tidy up the current mystery. So who’s in play?

Well, as you might expect, consulting psychologist Stale Aune is back in private practice. Without Harry to include and inspire him, the drudgery of each day’s sequence of clients depresses his spirits. A particularly difficult client compounds the looming existential despair with dream sequences based on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. Perhaps something in the lyrics is significant. Poor man! Does our expert actually have to listen to the music to crack the case and make a diagnosis? Then there’s Gunnar Hagen. He’s still head of the squad but having increasing problems with the new police chief Mikael Bellman. Fortunately, the latter’s childhood friend Truls “Beavis” Berntsen is on suspension so there are not quite as many disruptions as there have been in the past. Which leaves us with special detective Katrine Bratt, Beate Lonn, she of the magic eyes and eidetic memory to remember faces, and Bjorn Holm the forensics officer who can’t perform the same miracles as CSI but always manages to come up with interesting titbits of information.

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

This time around, we’re dealing with a cop killer. This crime is viewed as an exceptional by the police and, in defence of their reputation, they devote exceptional resources to solving it. This killer is particularly provocative because the victims are killed on the anniversaries of the murder cases they failed to solve. It seems this killer is taking revenge for the victims whose murderers have never been brought to book. Yet this may not be the right motive. Those of you who read police procedurals will know the key elements in the investigation focus on motive and opportunity. At first sight, it doesn’t appear there are any connections between the different murders. Then there’s a hint there may be a common denominator person. There’s just the one problem. He seems to have been killed in his cell in prison. Ah happy days. It’s this type of problem that makes reading police procedurals/murder mysteries such a delight. Then we add into the mix the general development of the series characters, one of these unfortunate allegations of impropriety by an older lecturer against a female student, and unfinished business from the last book.

The result is a delightfully complicated and thoroughly engrossing read. Indeed as we move closer the end and the morality gets a little blurry, we get into some very nice discussion of Harry Hole’s personality. Just what’s been driving him in potentially self-destructive directions and can anything be done to keep him on the straight and narrow (and still capable of solving crimes)? The answers are fascinating, and although there’s a slightly convenient way in which he avoids crossing over the line (again), the thriller tension is ratcheted up most effectively as we close in on the solution and the aftermath. There’s also a delightfully macabre hook left for the next in series. It shows an elegantly provocative mind at work to leave us poor readers on this note. Overall, Police shows Jo Nesbø on top form, delivering yet another powerful page-turner.

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
The Bat
Cockroaches
The Son.
There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Bat by Jo Nesbø

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The Bat by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Books, Random House, 2013) translated by Don Bartlett (originally published as Flaggermusmannen in 1997) is the first of the novels featuring Inspector Harry Hole and it’s a fascinating study of guilt and racism. Taking the question of guilt first, Harry is trapped in an official conspiracy to preserve the reputation of the Norwegian police and the peace of mind of the parents of the police officer Harry killed. People do many different things when they are in public office. Sorry, that’s a rather silly way to put it. Being human and so fallible, people act irresponsibly no matter what their status or role in society. It’s not, you understand, that they believe themselves above the law or that they can manipulate the law enforcement agencies into taking no action. Rather it’s that they become self-absorbed and fail to understand the risks they run. So when something goes wrong, senior management often decides to cover up the problem. It’s not directly to protect the individual wrongdoer although that’s the effect. It’s to maintain public confidence in the institution and, perhaps, help the families of those who die. So in a friendly-fire incident, it’s better to blame the enemy on the battlefield than the panicking squaddie who pulled the trigger. Or for the Police Commissioner to overlook the alcoholism and regular incapacity of the officer who was driving.

Aborigines are also central to the plot. Harry is partnered with an aboriginal police officer — obviously Australian officialdom has a sense of humour in matching the two social outsiders — he meets Toowoomba a younger man fighting against the institutionalised racism of the country, and relies on Joseph to find a witness and for guidance on how to accommodate the wrongful judgments of others. The opening part of Harry’s journey through Australian society is presented as a form of learning experience. He has to resolve his own reactions to his status as a barely-tolerated outsider. The Australian police are not overjoyed that a Norwegian has been sent to “help” investigate the local death of a Norwegian woman. They hide their resentment but prefer this inconvenient man to sit quietly in a corner and not disturb them. From an early point, Harry begins to engage with the local gay community which, despite official tolerance, is also struggling for acceptance. He’s also trying to find the right way to relate to Aborigines. The irony is that the Aborigines who know Harry is Norwegian and has only just arrived in Australia, will not relate to him in the same way as the locals. There should be no history or cultural baggage to get in the way of a more open set of relationships. Yet because Harry feels he doesn’t know how to relate to the Aborigines, he creates tensions where none should exist.

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Racism is a bit like how humans keep fish in an aquarium. Like mammals, fish also have a day/night cycle and if keepers disturb these circadian rhythms, the fish grow anxious and their health is threatened. So when the whites came to this big country and found “people” already there, the first reaction was to kill them. There was no possibility of sharing all this empty land. Later the whites felt guilty so they put the surviving locals on display. They tried to make them comfortable in the prevailing white culture, separated the children from their parents, introduced them to cities, and gave them an education. The expectation was that this well-intentioned forced relocation would make the new generation happy. The Aborigines would be assimilated and the whites wouldn’t have to feel guilty any more. Except, like the fish in the aquarium, many of the relocated children grew up alienated, rejecting the imposed environment as false, and wanting to return to their roots.

Harry’s like that too. The secrecy surrounding the fatal accident is forced on him. He’s even given official recognition for his good work in trying to catch the escaping criminal. How is he to expiate his own sins if they cannot be admitted? How can he be rehabilitated if there’s no public shame and punishment imposed to reflect his blameworthiness? The result is that he ends up as alienated, depressed and self-destructive as the Aborigines. The punishment he chooses for himself is cold turkey and obsessive dedication to his work as a detective. He quits drinking and drugs. He becomes a better than average detective. But he fails to become a better person because he can’t adjust to the knowledge he’s responsible for the death of a fellow officer. So when he falls off the wagon, the results are more extreme than might normally be the case.

It’s extraordinary we should have had to wait fifteen years to read this book in English. Although there are elements which some might consider controversial, there’s nothing so extreme to justify this form of censorship. That said, the continuing work of Don Bartlett has produced another outstanding result. Obviously I can’t say how this book reads in Norwegian, but it’s a wonderful piece of English. The way the plot works is also terrific. While the inclusion of the allegory and metaphor threatens to distract, the speculation and detailed analysis leading to the final conclusion is nicely balanced by the Australian context. As the outsider, Harry literally comes with a fresh pair of eyes. Except unless and until he knows something of the local culture, it’s impossible to use those eyes effectively. How can the newcomer attribute salience when he’s not aware of local significance? First he must learn and then think about what he has seen. The resulting investigation is completely engrossing. The murder of the Norwegian woman is linked to other deaths. There’s some very pleasing misdirection and Harry almost loses the game because he takes another drink. But the final conclusions are immensely satisfying. For those of you who have been wondering why Harry Hole is so dysfunctional, this is a must-read book!

For a review of the film version of one of Jo Nesbø’s books, see Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
Cockroaches
Police
The Son.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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