Finally published in English, the first Harry Hole novel explains a lot about the series hero
The Sunday Times, 7 October 2012
Harvill Secker £18.99, translated by Don Bartlett
It did not take long for Jo Nesbo’s embittered Norwegian detective, Harry Hole, to become one of the best-known characters in contemporary crime fiction. Nesbo’s breakthrough novel, The Snowman (the seventh book in the series, which has been published out of chronological order in this country), was published in English only two years ago, introducing Hole to an international audience for the first time. Although it showed him almost losing the woman he loved to a serial killer, his dark side was evident before that gut-wrenching episode. What has never been entirely clear is why Hole has such an angry, depressive streak. The answer turns out to lie in this, the first novel in the series.
The Bat appeared in Norway in 1997, and it’s a fascinating book, filling in the gaps in Hole’s biography and telling the story of the murder case in Australia that cemented his
reputation as a brilliant investigator. Hole’s irony, his resistance to authority and his sudden hunches are all present, but there’s an openness to experience that seldom surfaces in the later books.
At the beginning of the novel, Hole has just arrived in Sydney to help the Australian police with their investigation into the rape and murder of a young Norwegian woman. Assigned to show him round is a black detective, Andrew Kensington, who confounds many of Hole’s preconceptions about Australia. Kensington is an Aboriginal, a walking compendium of myths who teases and instructs his Norwegian visitor at the same time. His greeting at the airport — “Mr Holy, I presume” — allows Nesbo to embark on a running joke about how his detective’s name is pronounced. (It’s Hoo-leh, for those who don’t already know.)
The woman’s body was found by fishermen among rocks in Watson’s Bay, and most of the evidence had been washed away by the time detectives got to her. All they know is that she was 23, had blonde hair and disappeared after leaving the bar where she worked. Kensington takes Hole to meet key witnesses, but he also takes him to some less obvious places, including a circus where he introduces him to a transvestite clown. It is only much later in the case that Hole begins to wonder why the Australian detective has taken him on so many detours, and by then it’s too late to ask.
When British readers were first introduced to Hole, he’d already met the love of his life in Oslo and begun the relationship whose loss shapes the course of his life. All of that is in the future in The Bat. Hole is drawn instead to a striking Swedish redhead who works in the same bar as the murder victim. Hole’s clumsiness with women is almost charming, and Nesbo hints that a previous relationship in Norway has made him wary of emotional involvement. But Birgitta has an emotional maturity that suggests they might be able to form an enduring bond.
When the investigation leads Hole to the belief that the murderer is a serial killer targeting young blonde women across Australia, he also starts to suspect it’s someone he knows. The pace speeds up, revealing the single-minded, driven character familiar from the later novels; the leisurely narrative of the early chapters is shoved aside as Hole struggles to identify the killer and save another life. It becomes clear that his sense of guilt from the case (which is both a professional triumph and a private tragedy) drives much of what happens in the later books, including the desperate decision he takes in the recently published Phantom. It is a stunning opening to the series.