by BJW Nashe

Jo Nesbo’s fictional Inspector Harry Hole, the “Dirty Harry” of Norway, appears to be nearing the end of the line. After nine bestselling novels, Nesbo has indicated that his well-known character is just about finished. Which is probably just as well, because one has to wonder how much more punishment Inspector Hole can take. The serial killer cases — not to mention the booze, drugs, sex, and violence — that threaten to consume him are probably too much for anyone to handle — even a hard-nosed cop such as Hole. Death or total madness can’t be too far off at this point. Nesbo’s most recent novel, The Phantom, closes with the beleaguered cop shot twice and left for dead in a rat-filled sewer — an appropriate conclusion to a tale in which Hole has battled his way through a treacherous Nordic underworld rife with drugs and murder.

bathAs the tormented protagonist of Nesbo’s highly successful series of novels, Inspector Hole (pronounced “HOOL-eh”) has become an unlikely superstar of Scandinavian crime fiction. Nesbo has sold nearly 15 million books worldwide. Soon Harry Hole will be working his magic on the big screen, in Martin Scorcese’s film version of The Snowman – where, between drunken blackouts and doomed romances, he will track down a psychotic serial killer in the frozen depths of yet another brutal Norwegian winter. Let the good times roll, as they say.

The tough-guy cop or private eye who distrusts authority and relishes hard liquor and fast women is a well-worn cliche at this point. Nesbo has given the formula a swift kick in the gut by making his anti-hero a full-blown addict. Hole is addicted to alcohol and cigarettes, and sometimes to drugs and women as well. He’s also hooked on crime. The fervor and intensity he brings to his serial killer cases is Hole’s way of keeping his own inner demons in check. In the long run, however, this is not much of a winning strategy — comparable to taking up race car driving as a cure for depression. It’s simply too dangerous. Hole’s colleagues have a way of ending up dead or confined in mental institutions. The love of Hole’s life, Rakel, has fled from him in order to protect her young son from Hole’s occupational hazards. And Harry himself has been beaten, stabbed, and shot so many times one tends to lose count.

Some writers get so attached to their characters that they think of them as real people. They treat their characters with some measure of dignity and respect. Explorations of character flaws are a way to achieve empathy, and perhaps chart out a path toward redemption. Nesbo takes a somewhat more perverse approach. In interviews, he likes to point out that in each of his books he is seeking new ways to torture his main character. In a 2012 New York Times profile, Nesbo was quoted as follows:

lib“I found the spot where Harry is the most vulnerable and I put a drill in there and kept drilling. It’s not like I’m tired of writing about him, but after every book I find myself increasingly tired. I find myself becoming tired of Harry and his universe, because it’s a very dark place to be. So I have to take time off from Harry. For a while I thought I don’t necessarily have to end the story. I could just stop writing about him. But in my head I know what’s going to happen. What I can say is that he’s not going to have eternal life, and when he’s gone, he’s not going to resurrect.”

Poor Harry Hole. Like the Frankenstein monster, he is cruelly forsaken by his own damned creator. Indeed, the unremitting grimness of Hole’s adventures sometimes take on the flavor of a sick joke. Reading a slew of Nesbo’s novels might be likened to attending a party where the only music played is Joy Division, for hours on end. Eventually, songs such as “She’s Lost Control” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” become strangely humorous. Likewise, Harry Hole’s travails — if not exactly comical — are nonetheless capable of stirring up dark laughter. With each book, the villains and their crimes become more outrageous, and Hole’s personal life the booksheads further along toward ruin. In The Redbreast, Hole was faced with a killer mysteriously linked to Norway’s shadowy Nazi legacy during World War II. In Nemesis, he grappled with an elusive bank robber who liked to gun down bank employees, seemingly at random. The Snowman featured a psycho-killer whose trademark was leaving a human figure shaped with snow — hence the title — at the scene of his brutal crimes, sometimes even placing the victim’s head on top of the snowman. The Leopard featured Nesbo’s most bizarre killings yet, in which victims drowned in their own blood after being stabbed in the mouth with needles from a torture device called “Leopold’s Apple.” The Phantom finds Hole so damaged from his crime-fighting adventures that he is no longer even working as an official cop. He has gone solo. Yet he still gets drawn into yet another dense criminal affair, when his ex-girlfriend Rakel’s son, now a young man, is accused of killing another fellow who is addicted to a new designer drug called “Violin.” Needless to say, Harry has to try out the new drug in the course of his investigation.

There’s no shortage of dark thrills in all of these books, and Nesbo’s suspenseful plotting demonstrates that Harry Hole, in spite of his deep flaws, is a brilliant detective. Yet Hole’s alcoholism remains the key to his character. And since alcoholism is arguably a far worse problem in Norway than violent crime, which is relatively rare, one can easily make the case that alcoholism is the most relevant theme running throughout these books.

Even though Hole manages to stay sober most of the time, his sobriety is about as far from serene as you can imagine. Harry’s a pure white-knuckler. Every time he strolls into his favorite neighborhood bar, Schroeder’s, we can’t help but cringe, even though most of the time he just orders coffee. When he does go on a bender, he gets thoroughly obliterated. He’s the kind of drinker who hits the bottle, then wakes up several days later with no idea what has happened in the interim. And when it comes to other controlled substances, Harry isn’t leoprone to “just say no.” At the beginning of The Leopard, we find that Hole — devastated by the Snowman case, now sporting a thick scar that runs across his cheek from mouth to ear, and a titanium middle finger on one hand — has fled to Hong Kong, where he has gambled away most of his money and now wastes away his days smoking opium in a dilapidated flophouse. There’s another serial killer on the loose in Oslo, however, so one of Harry’s female colleagues is dispatched to retrieve him from the Far East. She manages to convince him that he’s needed back on the job in Norway. Plus his father is dying in the hospital. Rail-thin, scarred, and strung-out, Hole boards the plane back home. And so the torture continues, with his most freakish and dangerous case yet. Two victims drowned in their own blood. Another one hanged. A fourth super-glued to a bathtub and then slowly drowned. To track down the killer, Hole has to travel to the fun-filled Democratic Republic of Congo — where the Leopold’s Apple device originated.

nessyAs a writer, Nesbo is less concerned with producing great literature than he is with delivering powerful crime fiction. He works the middle terrain somewhere between Peter Hoeg’s highbrow quality lit and Steig Larsson’s pulp suspense. Stylistically, Nesbo might be described as Hemingway nursing a bad hangover, or Hamsun mid-way through a hunger strike. Which is nothing to scoff at. In particular, Nesbo succeeds at blending hard-boiled prose techniques with moody Nordic atmospherics. His plotting is complicated and tense enough to keep us turning the pages late into the night. Nesbo’s at his best when he takes the popular form of the Scandinavian police procedural and injects it with elements of bloody horror. Consider the following description from The Leopard of a bleak, empty swimming pool in an Oslo public park:

“The wind howled through the leafless trees in Frogner Park. A duck with its head drawn deep into its plumage drifted across the pitch-black surface of the lake. Rotting leaves stuck to the tiles of the empty pools at Frogner Park. The place seemed abandoned for all eternity, a lost world. The wind blew up a storm in the deep pool and sang its monotonous lament beneath the thirty-two-foot-high diving tower, which stood out against the night sky like a gallows.”

A tremendous passage, — nearly poetic, by Nesbo’s standards. But where’s the crime? Don’t worry, it only takes ten or fifteen pages for Nesbo to return to this same pool. This time, the place is a ghastly crime scene, as a female victim is marched up the diving tower with a rope around her neck and then hanged. Nesbo’s gallows imagery has now become Harry Hole’s reality:

sea“Nine feet above the bottom of the pool the rope tightened around Marit Olsen’s neck and throat. It was an old-fashioned type, made of linden and elm, and had no elasticity. Marit Olsen’s stout body was not checked to any appreciable degree; it detached itself from the head and hit the base of the pool with a dull thud. The head and the neck were left on the rope. There wasn’t much blood. Then the head tipped forward, slipped out of the noose, fell onto Marit Olsen’s blue tracksuit top and rolled across the tiles with a rumble. Then the pool was still again.”

No wonder Harry Hole’s an emotionally shattered alcoholic. Yet alcoholics don’t need anything as dramatic as a hanging/beheading in order to start drinking. Given Harry’s arguments with his superiors, his distrust of colleagues, his lack of friends, and his failed attempts at romance, one wonders how he manages to stay sober at all. Throw a bunch of grisly murders into the equation, and you have a blueprint for disaster.

nesboAs for Jo Nesbo, who has both worked as a stockbroker and toured as a singer and guitarist in a Norwegian rock band, he appears to be neither emotionally damaged or afflicted with alcoholism. We can only speculate as to the autobiographical significance of Harry Hole. Hole’s loner tendencies and his anti-authoritarianism probably spring from Nesbo’s own personality. But he’s not likely to serve up any deep personal secrets on book tours or during press interviews. There’s no time for much self-reflection — let alone psychoanalysis — in the type of noir practiced by Nesbo. He’s too busy torturing Inspector Hole.

Nesbo’s torture chamber is clearly just as indebted to classic American crime novels by Hammett, Chandler, and Cain as it is to Scandinavian authors such as Henning Mankell. Rather than laboring under the anxiety of the North American influence, however, Nesbo has a lot of fun with his USA connections — much as Jean-Luc Godard liked to mess around in his films with American cinematic tropes. The Harry Hole novels are packed with references to American culture and politics. We can’t help but chuckle when Harry is mocked by fellow raycops for his serial killer fixation. “What do you think this is, America?” they ask him. Characters listen to American music such as Elvis, Hank Williams, and Jason and the Scorchers. At home in his apartment, Harry listens to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album, or something by Martha Wainwright. When Harry takes his girlfriend’s son Oleg to a concert, they take in a show by the band Slipknot. (Nothing like death metal for a warm father-son bonding experience.) Harry reads Jim Thompson. He praises a book by John Fante. Harry listens to the news, bemoaning the fact of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. Harry takes in the latest debate over America’s War on Terror, and he’s less than thrilled with the neocon position. These are just a handful of examples. All together, they add up to a kind a sly commentary on the country that has supplied Nesbo with the basic building blocks of his highly lucrative fiction, yet still remains distinctly foreign to him, and even problematic in many ways.

snowNesbo’s police procedurals from hell, and his alcoholic detective Harry Hole, might be too dark for some readers. But they have found a loyal fan base among those of us who like our crime fiction drenched in noir, featuring crime-fighters who are human, all too human. Nesbo’s Norwegian take on the genre is both intelligent and thrilling. It’s unfortunate that these nine novels have not been translated and released in sequence. The first Harry Hole thriller, The Bat, is not even available in English yet (but it’s on the way). For readers reluctant to commit to an entire series, I recommend starting out with The Snowman, continuing on through The Leopard, and then tackling The Phantom. These form a trilogy that no serious fan of crime fiction should miss out on. All are available in stylish trade paperback format from the fine folks at Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.

Harry Hole may be nearing the end of the line, but we are not quite done with him yet. Not by a long shot.


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