Review: Jo Nesbo – Cockroaches

For those of us who were early readers of Nesbo’s books, the order in which they were translated into English was Jo Nesbo - Cockroachesproblematic. Hole had clearly spent time in both Australia and Thailand working on cases that had impacted on his professional and personal life. But we, as readers, had no idea of the substance of these investigations. The Australian conundrum was finally solved last year with the publication of Nesbo’s first book The Bat which, confusingly, introduced us to a sober Harry Hole. Nesbo’s second book, Cockroaches, has also recently been translated and, finally, we discover what actually happened during Harry’s Thai sojourn.

Harry Hole, off the Jim Beam but killing himself with beer, is sent by his boss to Thailand to investigate the death of the Norwegian ambassador in a motel room. Following a recent scandal involving a prominent Norweigian citizen and child pornography, the governments of both Norway and Thailand are keen to avoid any scandal. Harry discovers that the death consists of layers of deception that need unravelling in the Thai heat. We get a glimpse into the excesses of expat life, the seedy underbelly of prostitutes plying their trade and a police force trying to solve a crime under the scrutiny of those wanting to protect their political positions.

Although only Nesbo’s second book, this is a much more assured narrative than The Bat. We see Hole using his intuition and investigative skills to solve a case, while wrestling with his demons from the past. The fact that he’s not always successful in either case adds an air of vulnerability to the character and uncertainty for the reader as to how many victims we can expect until the plot is resolved. The Thai setting is a familiar one for crime readers although we also get a fair bit of the history of the country which I thought was well done. The Bat was criticised by some Australian readers for its incorrect portrayal of the Aboriginal past. I wonder how successful Nesbo was also at accurately depicting the history of the sex trade in Thaliand but it certainly made interesting reading.

I’m sure that Nesbo’s existing fans will enjoy this book. For me, it was one of the most engaging ones that he’s written although I can never make up my mind if his plot’s are deceptively simple or fiendishly complicated. I suppose the fact I can’t decide is a credit to the writer.

Thanks to Vintage for me review copy. The translation was by Don Bartlett.

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Review: Jo Nesbo – The Bat

The translation of Jo Nesbo’s books as part of the Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon gave English readers some excellently plotted thrillers such as  The Devil’s Star and The Redbreast, and introduced the character of Harry Hole, an alcoholic, shambolic but brilliant detective. It was clear, however, that Harry Hole had an established back story developed in earlier books that had yet to be translated. The series continued to be published up to the most recent book Phantom but throughout the novels, an investigation in Australia was continually alluded to as a pivotal moment in Harry’s life. Finally, English readers are to read the story of his sojourn in Australia with the publication of The BatNesbo’s first book which has been translated into English by Don Bartlett.

Harry hole is sent to Australia to investigate the murder of Inger Holter, a Norwegian girl who was briefly famous in Norway as a children’s TV presenter. Harry is a recovering alcoholic who became sober after causing an accident that killed a colleague and is considered by Oslo police to be one of their best investigators. Harry is bluntly told by the Australian police chief that he is there as an observer but he soon gets sucked into the case where a serial killer is raping and strangling fair haired girls.

As I have come to expect from Nesbo I found The Bat to be a gripping read that was plotted with a satisfying amount of twists and turns. In the first half of the book Harry Hole isn’t the character that we have come to know. We do get a lot of his back story, including information about his Sami mother who died when he was in his twenties and his sister with Downs Syndrome. He is sober and respectful and seems to be happy as an observer, making helpful comments on the progress of the case. However, a series of events prove to be the catalyst for his demons to re-emerge and we begin to see why Australia has haunted him throughout subsequent books.

There were some slightly odd aspects to the narrative that Nesbo dropped in later books. Some of the descriptions of the treatment of Aborigines and tales of the Australian counter-culture seemed a little preachy and over explained. However the character of Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal ex-boxer leading the case, provided an interesting glimpse into past wrongs committed against the indigenous Australians and this method of ‘show not tell’ was much more successful.

There are lots of music references throughout the book which I don’t remember from the other novels and also a theatrical feel to some of the scenes, including a Marie Antoinette guillotine style mock execution. There were however, classic motifs that we associate with Harry Hole novels, including the slightly over the top violence. The ending is pure Jo Nesbo.

I bought my copy of the book.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Events

One of the great things about moving back to the UK is being able to attend some of the wonderful book events that take place across the country. On Thursday I attended the Cheltenham Literature Festival, a ten day event that draws an eclectic list of writers, which this year included JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Pat Barker.

Limiting myself to an afternoon, I attended two interesting sessions in the picturesque Imperial Square venue where the rain hammered down on the roof of our tents. Both events (of course) had  a crime fiction element and gave some interesting insights into aspects of the genre. Here’s a brief summary of the two events.

 

Funerals and Mourning: Panel: Thomas Enger, Tim Lott, Kitty Aldridge and Catherine Arnold. Moderated by Nicolette Jones.

The panelists introduced works of literature that contained, in their opinion, moving and thought-provoking depictions of funerals. There were readings from Trollope, Roth and Updike and from Enger’s Burned.

In the ensuing discussion, Kitty Aldridge made an interesting observation that in literature, while death is expected to shock readers, funerals are often used for comical or ironic effect.

A question from the audience encouraged the panel to consider death in the context of the harm we inflict on each other. Tim Lott agreed that fiction can appeal to the sadistic nature in ourselves, although somewhat controversially suggested us crime readers had a deep-seated desire to commit a murder. I shall say no more….

 

Nordic Noir: Panel: Barry Forshaw, Don Bartlett, Thomas Enger, Gunnar Staalesen

For us fans of Scandinavian crime fiction, this panel was an interesting discussion on the popularity of Norwegian crime novels and the issues surrounding translated fiction. On the panel were two crime writers (GS and TE) whose works have been translated into a wide number of languages, one translator (Don Bartlett) best known for his translations of  Jo Nesbo’s books and Barry Forshaw who has written an excellent guide to Scandinavian crime fiction, Death in a Cold Climate.

The panel began by discussing how titles often change during translation. Jo Nesbo’s first Harry Hole book The Bat, which has just been published, was originally titled The Bat Man which was not felt appropriate for an English speaking audience (the second book will be called The Cockroach). The Norwegian title of Thomas Enger’s first book translated into Apparent Death which was changed by his publisher to Burned. He came up with the subsequent titles of Pierced (book 2) and Scarred (forthcoming book 3) himself.

In relation to the credit that translators get for their work, DB suggested that while it’s nice to be invisible, it can be galling when no mention is made of their contribution at all in reviews etc. TE likes it when his translators ask significant questions about the subtleties of his text and worries if they have translated without any contact with him whatsoever. GS can read some of the languages that his books are translated into but doesn’t check-up on the translations. Both GS and TE agreed that it was a significant moment when their works were translated into English, the language of many of the classic crime writers.

DB said he read other crime books and sometimes found interesting phrases which helped him with his own translations. Translations are made in collaboration with editors who usually have the final say over specific words although he does feel responsibility to reflect the language of the original. Expletives in his opinion were notoriously hard to translate as they often have different degrees of offensiveness in a language.

The popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction was attributed to the influence of Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö, then Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo. Scandinavian countries have changed over this period  though and the panel agreed that the mass killings that took place in Breivik are likely to have an impact on crime fiction coming out of Norway.

 

An interesting two panels and as usual, having promised myself I wouldn’t buy any books to contribute to my TBR mountain, I came away with Catherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead, and The Bat which I started on the train home. There were no books by Gunnar Staalesen available for purchase although I probably would have been stuck where to start. Any recommendations?