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The Son by Jo Nesbø

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

The Son by Jo Nesbo

There are times when it’s right to begin a review with a headline that will signal whether people want to take the time to read the rest. This is such a time. Making no apologies for the alliteration, The Son by Jo Nesbø (Alfred Knopf, 2014) is magnificently malevolent. From this you will understand that there’s a significant amount of violence, mayhem, and not a little murder delivered with considerable flair and in often quite stunning detail. So if you’re of a nervous disposition and easily shocked, this is not a book you should pick up.

Continuing now with those of you who enjoy a book which explores the darker side of human nature with unbridled enthusiasm, this is a story of revenge and, despite the level of criminality and corruption that’s revealed as the plot unwinds, it speculates on whether taking revenge in cold blood can ever be redemptive. In this, you should understand, there’s a considerable lack of plausibility. But if the plot is going to get everyone relevant to the right places at the right time as the end approaches, physical and emotional laws need to be flexible. Escapes must be possible, bullets will miss their targets, and human hearts prove weak and strong as the situation dictates. In spirit, this reminded me of Headhunters which is the other non-Harry Hole novel and which became a wonderful film. Such a resonance has also occurred in the boardrooms of Hollywood because Warner Bros bought this book in 2012 and is developing it for a big screen debut sometime in the future.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

So what’s it about? We begin by examining the existence of one Sonny Lofthus who’s one of these remarkably laid-back prisoners in what’s supposed to be one of Scandinavia’s superprisons. Somehow he’s managing to score a continuous amount of almost pure heroin which keeps him docile and tractable over the twelve years of his imprisonment. He surfaces just enough to have become a father confessor figure to all the other prisoners and to admit to murders when it’s convenient to those that control him. At this point in his career, he was allowed out on a day visit and, as if by magic, a woman was murdered. Despite there being another more credible suspect, Sonny is soon admitting to the killing. Except, during one of his informal confession sessions, one of the other inmates tells him a story about the circumstances in which his father died. This inspires him to go cold turkey and, in due course, to escape from this magic prison. This sends him on a rampage of revenge. He’s been a listening ear to so many stories told over the years and, of course, he had to learn all the details of the murders he was to admit. This means he knows exactly who’s guilty and should be punished for their sins.

This leads us to Chief Inspector Simon Kefas, an older but very experienced detective now working homicide. When he was younger, he was one of three cadets entering the force. One has now achieved high rank as the police commissioner. The other was Sonny’s father. Now he’s caught up in investigating the emerging series of homicides as Sonny works up to full rampage mode. In the midst of all this, there’s time for some sentimentality and various interacting themes of love. It all works up to a superior climax in which the “heroes” prevail and, albeit in slightly bloodthirsty terms, justice prevails. There’s terrific narrative drive as we turn the pages to find the next major incident. This is not a book you read for realism but, in its own kind of way, it rises above the corruption and general nastiness of human nature and ends on a positive note as peace and calm once again descends on Norway. The Son is recommended as police procedural meets violent crime with a little horror thrown in to spice up the plot.

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

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

Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

April 21, 2014 4 comments

Cockroaches-The-Second-Inspector-Harry-Hole-Novel-V-376003-5d4eb82dbd9467d7f1b0

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

The-Bat-Jo-Nesbo

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.

Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)

Based on the stand-alone novel by Jo Nesbo, Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011) takes us to a world where reputation is everything. Let’s face it, even if you go back to the school yard where everyone present is picked to play in teams, your reputation is either made or unmade by who chooses you. If you’re the first choice of the cool captain, you bask in glory. If you’re the last one, the one no-one wanted on their team, you wish you went to another school. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a man of impeccable reputation. He’s the top headhunter, the man who picks the next generation of leaders for Norwegian business. With his endorsement, a man can be slotted in as CEO of Pathfinder, Norway’s top technology company. Unfortunately, interviews are not going well because the candidates are not playing hard to get. They show no class by throwing themselves at the job. If they had the right reputation, they would wait to be asked. Then along comes the perfect candidate. Meet Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). He’s been the CEO of a Dutch technology company but is only in Norway to tidy up some old family business. Naturally, he has an impeccable reputation and he’s not available, unless someone like Roger Brown was to ask him, of course.

Aksel Hennie doing his best to stay cool

 

There’s one other feature you need to understand. Roger Brown is slightly shorter than average and is in a marriage with a tall, beautiful woman (although he also has a mistress, Lotte (Julie R. Ølgaard). Diana Brown (Synnøve Macody Lund) is the ultimate trophy wife. When she walks into the room, everyone turns to watch her pass by. Roger is deeply insecure because of his height and, to keep himself in her good books, he spends money on her like water. Their home is worth millions and filled with every possible luxury. They both drive top-of-the-range cars, and she has every possible designer label item she might ever want to wear or carry. There’s only one small problem. She wants children and he doesn’t. This causes friction and is very much on Roger’s mind. To settle her down, again, he buys her some gold earrings. This would be another good investment if Roger actually earned enough to pay for all this sugar. Sadly, he doesn’t.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Synnøve Macody Lund discussing art

 

To cover the cost of keeping Diana sweet, he’s become a top art thief. Early on, he placed a reliable man, Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander), in the top local security company which has surveillance cameras and security systems in the homes of the rich and wealthy all over Norway. Using remote overrides, Ove can admit Roger to any address on the company’s books and wipe all recordings of his presence. How does Roger know what to steal? Well he does interview all the top business people in Norway. This gives him an excuse to ask about their interests and their movements. When he identifies a target and knows when the house will be empty, he has a copy made, and enters with maximum precautions to prevent any DNA evidence from being left. Most never notice the switch and the sales of this plundered loot finances the marriage. Now Diana tells Roger that Clas has an original Rubens.

Eivind Sander taking a moment in his shoot-out

 

It’s always strange to see how fragile life can be. One minute you can feel you’re in control of the situation and then, without warning, you face uncertainty. If Roger had not loved his wife, if the question of pregnancy had not been on his mind, he would never have taken out his mobile phone when he saw the children playing. That proved to be a very fateful call. Indeed, it precipitated a real crisis. The rest of the film poses and answers just two simple questions. What will people do to protect themselves? and Can you rely on people to act consistently with their reputations?

Julie R. Ølgaard asking for too much

 

Without question, Headhunters or Hodejegerne is the best thriller I’ve seen so far this year. Indeed, it may be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It’s wonderfully precise in the way the plot dovetails together. There’s no detail too small, no incident too trivial to be forgotten. Everything comes back with renewed significance later on. Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg have done a wonderful job on the script and Morten Tyldum has produced a lean, mean film as director. At a technical level, it’s a masterpiece. But all this would be for nothing without Aksel Hennie’s performance. Yes, the rest of the cast are pitch perfect but, without the central performance, it would all be for nothing. Even though we should not be rooting for the thief to come through this sea of troubles, Aksel Hennie manages to make this somewhat unpleasant man sympathetic. In this case, morality be hanged! It would be great if he could survive. There’s just one problem. Everyone and their dog is out to kill him.

 

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

For review of novels by Jo Nesbo, see:
The Bat
Cockroaches
Police
The Son.

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