Review: Jo Nesbo – Phantom

Jo Nesbo led the charge of Scandinavian noir in the UK when The Devil’s Star was published in 2005. It introduced the inimitable Harry Hole and Nesbo’s unique take on the darker forces of Norwegian crime. Following its success the books were then translated more or less in order, starting with The Redbreast. More recently the standalone, Headhunters, was published which I found disappointing so I was looking forward to the return of the alcohol ravaged Harry Hole and his dysfunctional approach to policing.

I’ve always enjoyed Nesbo’s books but what I found when I came to reading Phantom was that I couldn’t remember where we had left Harry Hole the detective. Nesbo’s books are weighty thrillers with complex plots and, perhaps because the very early books haven’t yet been translated, there is a sense of dislocation when it comes piecing together Harry’s life. This book was similarly complex, but I found some of the plot themes of previous books coming together.

Harry Hole returns from exile in Hong Kong to help exonerate Oleg, the son of his former girlfriend Rakel, from a murder charge. Oleg has become mixed up in the dealing of a new drug on Oslo’s streets. Named ‘violin’, it is a synthetically manufactured opiate with devastating effects. When the drug’s main dealer Gusto is found murdered, DNA evidence implicates his closest friend Oleg. By returning home to face old and new adversaries, Harry also has to reflect on his shortcomings as a father figure to Oleg as he was growing up.

The book’s central theme is drugs – the damage inflicted by the substances themselves and by the dealers, pushers and gangs that operate openly in Oslo’s seedier districts. The descriptions of that life are detailed and convincing and Nesbo cleverly shows that although faces and the nature of the substance may change, the way of life remains constant. Even a sub-plot involving a drug smuggling airline pilot is effective in showing the human face of the drug industry. The creation of ‘violin’, a new generation of drug was well thought out as was the development of a character known only as ‘Mr Dubai’ who is seen through the eyes of the ambitious and damaged Gusto.

As we would expect from Nesbo the plot was convoluted and the different narrative voices moved the drama around the city and between the past and present. The voice of the dead Gusto was initially quite irritating (I don’t like narrations from dead people, which is becoming a motif in Scandinavian crime fiction – see Midwinter Sacrifice and Until Thy Wrath be Past ) but showed us the evil of Mr Dubai in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. There were also some humorous moments involving Harry, such was when he sewed up his cut throat with a needle and black thread. Only Harry Hole could get away with this.

The phantom of the book’s title is eventually revealed and the narrative concludes leaving a number of possibilities for the future of Harry Hole. I found this book a return to form for Nesbo and could only marvel at the story he created.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Eurocrime , Crime Fiction Lover. and Milo’s Rambles.

24 thoughts on “Review: Jo Nesbo – Phantom

  1. I’ll be reading this soon, so am saving up your review until I’ve read the book. But the word “convoluted” jumped out at me – this is so true of Nesbo’s books. More than any other crime author, one has to pay attention to every sentence, just about.


  2. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – Thanks for such an excellent review! I’m glad you enjoyed this one as much as you did. You’re quite right about the fact that the Harry Hole novels are complex. They’re multilayered and they do require keeping everything straight in one’s mind. I think there’s such a thing as a plot that is too convoluted but at the same time, I do like to be intellectually engaged when I read. And following well-laid-out plot strands can do that.


  3. Sylvia dixon

    Hi Sarah

    I agree with you that it is good to get back to Harry Hole after Headhunters. I thought this one is excellent and I like the fact that the violence is less extreme than in The Snowman. I felt that the ending was almost inevitable but I’m not sure where Harry Hole goes from here.


    1. Hi Sylvia – Thanks for the comment. I looked at your reviews for in 2005 and 2006 for the early Nesbo books because this one had a similar feel. It will be interesting to see what happens next as Harry seems to wriggle out of most situations.


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  7. kathy d.

    I like this review. When I read Nemesis, I could not do anything else, was riveted to the pages. Just sat here reading until I was finished. An intelligent thriller, which came together excellently. The Devil’s Star, not so great, and I figured out the culprit early on.
    However, Phantom sounds quite good, can’t wait to read it.


    1. Funnily enough I have a bit of trouble separating out the early Harry Hole books after Nemesis as they seem to merge into one. I liked this a lot and could appreciate some of the humour in it. It is one of my top reviews in terms of hits so readers are clearly taken with the character.


    1. Hi Linda – I have no idea whether it is the last Harry Hole book I’m afraid. However, in the UK, in October, the first Harry Hole will be published. Its title is ‘The Bat’. Have you read this one. I am looking forward to reading it even though it means I will be going to the start of the series.


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