Nesbo, Jo - 'The Snowman' (translated by Don Bartlett)
There is no doubt in my mind that THE SNOWMAN is the best so far of Jo Nesbo's series about Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo police. The novel is a very well-plotted, exciting story, initially about two women, both wives and mothers, who go missing - the start of a case with many complicated directions. But more than that, the protagonist (Harry) is an engaging character whose blend of tough vulnerability and funny subversions of authority make the reader strongly identify with him. As with many modern heroes of crime fiction, Harry stands up for what is right, and for intelligent, deductive police work, not for fashion, political correctness or toeing any organisational or party line. As the novel opens, the reader is given some hints that the women's disappearances may be related to other events during the past 25 years, and that the appearance of a snowman is a common theme to these sinister happenings. Even without this information, Harry is immediately convinced that a serial killer is at work, on the basis of a mysterious anonymous letter he has received referring in unnervingly precise terms to a case long ago in Harry's career, when he caught a notorious serial killer in Australia, making him famous in his native Norway*. Ever since, Harry has wanted to track down a serial killer on his home turf, but has never encountered one (regular readers of this series may think that this assertion stretches a point or two, based on some of Harry's earlier cases, but never mind).
What Harry is interested in is a battle of wits - the traditional serial killer of detective fiction who is highly intelligent and leaves complex clues as to his or her plan and motivation, a "worthy opponent". Convinced this is the case here, he, with newcomer Katrine Bratt, recently transferred to Oslo from the Bergen police, and his old colleagues Magnus Skarre and forensic expert Bjorn Holm, rush to follow up the serial killer hypothesis, leaving another department to carry out the traditional investigation of following up tips from the public and so on.
Harry and his small team follow up the disappearances, and gradually reveal connections between the missing families, seeming to involve a plastic surgeon who runs a (too?) discreet clinic. The trail takes the team to one of the less salubrious hotels in Oslo, and from there to Bergen, where amid funny in-jokes about Bergen-Oslo relations, Harry tries to find out more about a cold case there involving several deaths and the disappearance of a renowned police detective.
As well as the plot itself, and in common with earlier books in the series, Harry gives the story its heart. He's a troubled and tortured man, constantly battling against addiction and bitterly aware of what he has lost by the break-up of his relationship with Rakel. He stays in contact with her and her son Oleg, although Rakel is planning to marry her new boyfriend very soon. Yet at the same time he's an optimist, a trusting soul who retains a youthful enthusiasm for life despite the many awful cases of the dark side of human nature he has encountered in his work as a crime squad detective.
THE SNOWMAN is a complex, intellectually satisfying plot with many twists and turns. I half-guessed what was behind one aspect of it, guessed wrong on another, and failed completely to spot a third. Every time events seemed to be explicable, something else happens to cause further confusion - and these constant wrong turnings are so well dovetailed together in such an exciting manner, as flaws in the logic of one outcome lead directly to the next phase of the chase, that this book really is impossible to put down. Not once, but time and again, we are forced to re-think what we thought was true, as the author shows events from a range of views and cleverly reveals just enough to stay several steps ahead of the reader.
The novel is superbly translated by Don Bartlett, who conveys the author's naturalistic, humorous style - and perhaps most importantly, Nesbo's sensitivity to the human condition, to fathers' relationships to their children, and to the random cruelness of biology. It's always hard to point to flaws in a crime novel in case one gives away too much to those who have not yet read it, but as usual with this author, I found the main climax over-elaborate, and spotted one or two other slight inconsistencies. I am also surprised that Harry remains so trusting of people, both in his home and at work, given what's happened to him in previous novels.
But never mind - this book is fantastic. It really is a must-read, not least putting to rest the unfair cliche that Scandinavian novels are all about doom and gloom - but mainly it's just a brilliant police procedural novel, whose plot and characterisation can't be beaten. Do yourself a favour and read it.
*These events are told in the first Harry Hole story, THE BAT MAN, due to be published in English in 2012.
Maxine Clarke, England