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It’s a Mystery: The Trouble with Harry

By (February 1, 2009) No Comment

The Redbreast

By Jo Nesbø
Harper, 2009


By Jo Nesbø
Harper/HarperCollins, 2009

In 2007, Norwegian Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast landed on these shores to the kind of rave reviews that put Nesbø on every crime-fiction-fan’s A-list. The winner of the Glass Key Award (Northern Europe’s most prestigious crime-fiction prize), it was the first to feature highly charismatic homicide detective Inspector Harry Hole of Oslo’s Crime Squad. Personal charm aside, he is also a recovering alcoholic weighted down with inner demons and unresolved personal and professional issues. A trade paperback edition of The Redbreast has just been published.

The Redbreast begins with Harry and his partner Ellen on surveillance detail. Oslo is the scene of a summit meeting that includes the President of the United States. While watching the President’s back, Harry spots a potential assassin in a phone booth and shoots him. Fast forward to Harry’s new assignment, POT, the Security Service. As far as Harry is concerned, he’s been booted upstairs to obscurity. Actually, his ass has been saved by the powers that be who don’t want it bruited about that the “potential assassin” he shot was a Secret Service agent.

So, for questionable services rendered, Harry sits in his fairly isolated POT office reading reports from regional POT offices and evaluating which were to be passed up higher into the system. Harry’s new job is to filter out the dross. This has the potential for him to lose his mind from boredom except that Harry, being Harry, comes upon a report that his gut tells him is significant:

The third [report] was from the Østland region, from the police station in Skien. They had received some complaints from chalet owners in Siljan who had heard shooting the previous weekend. Since they weren’t in the hunting season, an Officer had gone up to investigate and they found empty cartridges of an unknown make in the woods. They had sent the cartridges to the forensics Department within Kripos, the Norwegian CID, who had reported back that the ammunition was probably for a Märklin rifle, a very unusual weapon.

That super-rifle that costs over half a million kroner, is Nesbø’s MacGuffin. Tracking that rifle leads Harry from neo-Nazis arms freaks, to South African gun smugglers, to ex-Waffen SS—Norway’s so-called traitors—to a villain with the code name Prince, to a brewing assassination, and finally, to a murder on his territory. When a body shows up with a bullet from that rifle, it’s Harry’s ticket back to the Crime Squad.

Shifting effortlessly between the last days of World War II on the Eastern Front and modern day Oslo, Nesbø spins a complex tale of murder, revenge and betrayal. It is a brilliant evocation of how the wounds of history continue to bleed into the present. The linking of the past and present through alternating story lines is used superbly here, with the two plots interacting dynamically. Nesbø has a terrific feel for character. Harry shares characteristics with so many similarly melancholic modern cops (Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick come to mind) yet he is most assuredly an original with an edgy appeal all his own.

Now we have another Harry Hole novel, Nemesis, that is every bit the richly textured, tautly plotted, and psychologically astute thriller that made The Redbreast such an unqualified success.

When a bank teller is shot during a holdup, Harry insists that the object of the heist was murder not robbery. This does not sit well with Rune Ivarsson, head of the Robberies Unit. But then, everything about Harry rubs Ivarsson the wrong way. Harry is his nemesis. Fortunately, Bjarne Møller head of the Crime Squad and Harry’s boss, has spread a protective wing over him. Responding to Harry’s request to execute an end run around Ivarsson as the best way of investigating the heist, Møller muses,

Over the years, how many times had he put his head on the block for Harry, instead of heeding the well-meant career advice from older colleagues? Keep him at arm’s length, they said. A loose cannon, he is. The only thing that was certain about Harry Hole was that one day something was going to go disastrously wrong. However, because, in some mysterious way, he and Harry had so far always landed on their feet, no one had been able to implement any drastic measures. So far. The most interesting question of all, though, was: Why did he put up with it? The troublemaker. The ever-unbearable, arrogant bullhead. Because he was the best investigator he had and he liked the alcoholic, obstreperous, stubborn bastard.

Møller manipulates Ivarsson on Harry’s behalf. He gets Ivarsson to team Harry up with a wunderkind from Robberies, Beate Lønn. Strutting like a peacock, Ivarsson lays it out at the first team briefing:

I’ve just decided to experiment with a new approach. The gist is that a small party will work independently of, but in parallel with, the investigation team. The small party can bring a new and fresh focus because they are working separately and are not influenced by the other group. This method has proved to be effective in tricky cases. Most of us here, I am sure, will agree that Harry Hole has the natural qualifications to be a member of such a party.

Scattered chuckles. Ivarsson came to a halt behind Beate’s chair. “Beate you will join Harry.”

Beate blushed. Ivarsson placed a paternal hand are her shoulder: “If it doesn’t work, all you have to do is say.”

“I will,” Harry said.

So Harry has a new lady in his life. Beate, who left Police College this summer, solved three robberies simply by studying videotapes and has the ability to remember every face she’s ever seen. Meanwhile, awaiting the return of his lover Rakel from Russia, where she is engaged in a custody battle, Harry accepts an invitation to meet an old girlfriend, Anna Bethsen. The trouble with Harry is that he can’t say “no.”

Waking the next day at home with a humongous hangover, he gets the news that Anna is dead, apparently by her own hand. Worse, the night before is a complete blank and Tom Waaler, his rival in the Crime Squad, seems determined to implicate him. While Harry tries to quietly look into Anna’s death, he and Beate uncover strong ties in their case to one of Norway’s most notorious bank robbers, a Gypsy named Raskol. Except that Raskol’s in jail, playing chess, reading up on the art of ancient Chinese warfare and playing mind games with the best of Oslo’s psychoanalysts. Not only is Raskol implicated somehow in the robbery, he’s also connected to Anna: for starters, he owns her apartment. No surprise, Harry’s interview with him in his cell is thoroughly one-sided. Raskol is a master of the enigmatic response; he is Harry’s nemesis. As Harry attempts to connect the sea of dots strewn in his path, he must battle not only his adversaries but those ever present demons.

Nesbø interweaves his multiple, interlocking plot lines with consummate skill. He manages to explore the inner life of his lead character, while pacing the action at heart-stopping speed. In the best tradition of top notch crime novelists, he’s brilliant at playing it close to the vest until the windup. And then there’s a solution and a cliff hanger that’s a zinger.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.