Harry Hole seems ready to take any risk to catch an evil drug dealer in Jo Nesbo’s stark thriller
Sunday Times, 4 March 2012
One of the strongest selling points for any crime novelist is an instantly recognisable serial character. Agatha Christie’s Poirot is as famous as his creator, Ian Rankin made his name with Rebus and Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander occupies a unique place in contemporary crime fiction. Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian policeman, Harry Hole, is a recent discovery for most British readers but Nesbo’s novels are already selling in millions.
In the early novels, Hole was a police inspector in Oslo, and his personal problems — alcoholism and tortured relationships — seemed to go with the job. But Nesbo’s breakthrough novel, The Snowman, left him missing a finger and separated from the love of his life, Rakel. Nesbo never pretended that these events were anything but emotionally devastating for Hole; his last novel, The Leopard, had the detective leaving he police force and trying to obliterate his sorrows in Hong Kong.
Where The Leopard took Hole to Africa, in search of a killer who used a murder weapon of astonishing cruelty, Nesbo’s new novel, Phantom, sees him back in Oslo with the disfiguring scar he acquired in The Leopard. He is trying to find an elusive drug dealer who is wreaking havoc among the city’s addicts and his reason for returning to Oslo is personal: Rakel’s son, Oleg, now a teenage drifter, has been charged with the murder of another young addict.
According to the few police contacts still willing to talk to Hole, the young man’s guilt is pretty well established; the victim died in a squat used by Oleg, who had gunshot residue on his hands and left his DNA on the corpse. But Hole’s stubborn belief in the boy is the one thing he has to offer Rakel, and he sets about investigating the circumstances leading up to the murder with his usual tenacity. The dead boy sold drugs on the street, persuading addicts to switch to a new synthetic compound known as “violin”, and Hole is convinced he needs to find the drug baron who got him involved in the trade.
Nesbo is a powerful writer and there are some wrenching scenes. On a prison visit to Oleg, Hole finds a young man he barely recognises, who immediately begs him to muggle a dose of “violin” into his cell. The scenes between Hole and Rakel are equally fraught, making it clear she will do anything to get her son back and raising questions about the sincerity of her feelings for Hole. These are more complex emotions than are to be found in many crime novels, and there is a bleakness about them that suggests the plot is unlikely to offer much in the way of redemption.
Hole’s physical scars begin to seem trivial as he takes risk after risk, becoming so careless of his own safety that his life seems to hold little value for him. This is not merely another jaded detective, worn down by years on the job and reluctant to submit to authority, but a human being in the grip of an existential crisis. Hole is searching for a connection to a more innocent time, before his job impinged on others’ lives and, he believes, set the young Oleg on this disastrous course.
Consciously or not, Hole is looking for a reason to go on living. His pessimism pervades the novel, creating a fictional version of Oslo that’s unrelenting and melodramatic, but a bigger problem is the highly artificial device Nesbo adopts to maintain suspense. This is a series of passages in the voice of the murdered young man, a rambling final testament in which he teasingly reveals his character — and a corruption so ingrained that he was ready to sell his adoptive sister — as well as the truth about his relationship with Oleg.
As the novel approaches its climax, he also confirms the devastating truth that Hole has been edging towards. It’s been signalled for many pages and, despite a clever plot twist involving the identity of the drug baron, the final chapters deliver a punch that’s far from unexpected. Nesbo is brave to enter such stark emotional territory, but the novel cannot help but feel overburdened by the weight of Hole’s despair.
Translated by Don Bartlett