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.

Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft

I’ve literally just finished Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft and rather than add it to my “Review” pile I feel the need to review the book while it’s still fresh in my mind. I found the book both wonderful and frustrating and I’m trying to work out why. I am a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction. I think the books are largely well written, the authors have individual mannerisms that mean that they’re not a hegemonic whole but can be identified and remembered individually. Many of the books are also that lovely mixture of police procedural and reflective storytelling that seems to fit so well in the cold and sparse landscape.

In many ways, this book has many of the characteristics that I associate with the genre. It is set in one of the coldest ever Swedish winters and police detective Malin Fors is called to the countryside outside the town of Linköping where a man is found mutilated and hanging from a tree in the frozen wastes. Initial investigations suggest that it could be connected the ancient practice of a ‘midwinter sacrifice’, making offerings to the gods in return for happiness. However, the murdered man Bengt Andersson was a target for teenage bullies and his complicated family history may have a role in the crime.

I thought that the book was very well written. It is narrated in the present tense, something I personally don’t mind but not, I know, to everyone’s taste. The book started a little slowly but once it got going I did find it hard to put down. I liked the choppy nature of the narrative as the reader is moved around different characters. I also thought the characterisation was excellent, with minor characters such as Malin’s partner Zeke Martinsson and the journalist Daniel Högfeldt made interesting. He also writes well about the mother/daughter relationship although Malin does seem incredibly liberal in her attitudes.

What didn’t I like about the book? The parts written from the point of view of the dead Bengt Andersson were well written but I’ve come across a few books recently with passages incorporating the voice of the dead victim, most recently Åsa Larsson Until Thy Wrath be Past. The trouble is it rarely accords with what I would consider it like to be dead. I don’t find it distasteful, just extraneous I suppose to the narrative. The ending also left one particular plot strand without resolution. I found this disappointing mainly because the crime had been so horrific and I genuinely wanted to know the reason behind that particular savagery.  It’s unlikely to reappear in future books and I felt slightly cheated by the fact it remained unsolved, particularly as it involved a violent crime on a woman.

But I have to say the book caught me up in its narrative and it became impossible to put it down.

Other favourable reviews of the book can be found at crimesquad.com, crimesegments and at Eurocrime.