The Short Version: Several years after the physical and emotional trauma of The Leopard, Harry Hole is… well, he’s doing alright for himself. But when Oleg, the son of his former love Rakel, is convicted of murder, Harry returns to Oslo to see if he can clear the boy’s name. But Harry is working on his own now, going up against a new drug cartel and possibly even members of the government – and the whole time, he has to face his own doubts and demons at having come back at all…
The Review: Jo Nesbø has managed, quite wonderfully, to keep the Harry Hole series genuinely interesting well into its ninth book. Let’s ignore the ridiculous decision by English-speaking publishers (yeah, looking at both Harper and Vintage here) to publish the books with only a modicum of respect for the order in which they ought to be read (reading The Bat later this year will undoubtedly provide less enjoyment than if I’d read it several years ago, when it would’ve been my introduction to Harry) – and, while we’re at it, let’s also ignore the absolutely outrageous decision by a design-challenged individual or individuals at Vintage to change the covers from the dynamic black/white covers to these airport-trashy CRIME! covers – and instead look to the fact that even if books 1, 2, and 6 don’t hold up to the other books in the series, it’s a true achievement that Harry continues to be a dynamic and engaging and (most importantly) fluid character after so long.
I was worried at the conclusion of The Leopard that Nesbø had pushed our hero too far. The brutal violence, both physical and psychological, had shattered him and it seemed like there would be no real way to stagger back to life after that. Except I was forgetting a very important fact about human beings – one that Ian Fleming deployed so well in the Bond series – and that is that we heal. The scars and ghosts may remain – but we can heal. We can change. In a shocking scene at the end of the novel, a character brings up the fact that Harry, for the longest time, argued that human beings can’t change… and Harry responds that maybe he was wrong. He spends much of the book doggedly saying that even though he no longer works for the police, he is still a policeman – but that doesn’t disprove the assertion that people can change. Harry has cleaned up his act, gotten healthy again – and even as he dips back into his old vices* to solve the case, he seems to have a handle on them much more than he ever did before.
*I have to insert here that the one particular moment regarding Harry and an old vice feels… it feels a little bit disingenuous and wrong of Nesbø to’ve done it. I won’t give away the particular moment but it involves alcohol and while I understand why it happened, there’s little blowback on it – and it just felt like a BIG moment brushed aside without any follow-up. Anyway.
There’s also a slight sense, however, that Nesbø is starting to regard his creation the way that Conan Doyle regarded Sherlock Holmes. It started really in The Snowman – setting up a proper serial killer, starting to put Harry’s life into the ringer – and only accelerated into The Leopard. And (again trying to avoid spoilers, although the book has been out long enough that the statute of limitations will be open soon) there’s a sense, at the end of the book, that Nesbø wants to take a break from Harry. At the same time, however, this book feels entirely open-ended. The main crime in the novel, Oleg’s apparent murder of Gusto, feeds up the chain into a general drug-ring sort of story… but Harry doesn’t end up putting it all together. Indeed, several characters from the story put different pieces together without ever combining their knowledge and that leaves one considering what could come next. It feels like it could (and perhaps should) be a major denouement – but it also runs the risk of sounding like some of the things we’ve seen before.
I appreciated Nesbø’s brevity in this book and his restraint. Where the last few books have clocked in at an impressive heft, this one was under 500 pages and I think it benefited from that compression. The plot was so close-to-home that it was better to leave the bigger aspects of this crime/drug ring hovering on the sidelines: this was a book about Harry trying to atone for the past he pretty royally screwed up. And I really loved that, that intimacy. Harry nearly has his life “together” but he sacrifices – or is, at least, willing to sacrifice – so much just to help the woman he loves and the ‘son’ he never quite fathered enough. It makes the end that much more potent and beautifully so. There comes a passage at the end that punctuates several scenes that whip back and forth between different characters, between Harry and the murderer, that stops the eye for a moment… because there is no paragraph break. It is a long, single paragraph, running from one page onto another and then to another – and it is beautiful, simple, heartbreaking. The sort of writing that elevates this series above nearly (if not) all of its contemporaries – that and the fact that Harry, who started out as nothing more than another “anti-hero”, has become so much more realistic than we have any right to expect our crime heroes to be.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. There are reasons that I can’t declare this book an out-and-out smash hit but I can’t really go into them without divulging some of the plot – and the plot is twisty enough that I’d really rather keep it secret. Suffice it to say, the narrow focus is both welcome and a little frustrating at times… and at the end of the book, you have to wonder what Nesbø wants to do with Hole. But he had the choice to make Harry a run-of-the-mill-gruff-cop-with-a-problem and instead made several more dynamic and more damning choices. It has paid off incredibly for Nesbø, though – this series is quite possibly my favorite crime saga happening today. Phantom is just another excellent entry and well worth any even-modest fan’s time.