The Short Version: A younger, less damaged (although still plenty messed up) Harry Hole heads to Australia after a particular traumatic car accident at home. He’s there ostensibly to look into the death of a young Norwegian girl of minor celebrity but really he’s there to be kept out of sight for a while. But the death turns out to be murder – and not only is it murder, but it is one in a series of them. Soon, Harry’s on the trail of a serial killer and might just lose control.
The Review: In The Snowman, Harry is taunted by the titular serial killer with a reference to the Murri – a nickname for Robin Toowoomba, a serial killer with whom Harry grappled years before and who’d helped create the legend of Harry that has sustained even through his recent… unpleasantness. People speak in hushed tones about his time in Australia but the books are written with the tacit understanding that readers will understand that subtle callback. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of the powers that be (looking at both of Mr. Nesbø’s American publishers here), however, we’ve been subjected to a cockamamie production schedule: The Oslo Trilogy (books 3-5), then books 7-9… and only now books 6 and 1 (with 2 still TBA). As a result, this feels both like a prequel, like a missing link, and like the place where I’d like to’ve started the series. It sets up little things, like meeting Harry sober – and explaining that his last name is pronounced “Hoo-Leh” (as he puts it, anyway). That fact alone is something you don’t ever get in any of the six previously published HH novels and while it’s a tiny thing… it’s also kind of a crucial thing, wouldn’t you say?
For it feels much like a series beginner. It doesn’t feel like a first novel, although its clear to a reader of Nesbø’s later novels how he grew into his prodigious talents from these humble-r beginnings. There’s a leanness here – much as there is to Harry himself – and the plot’s edges feel sharp at times, to the brink of abruptness… but there’s also something wonderful about that. Although English readers will come to the series with a sense of history, the book subtly encourages you to shed that for the sheer fact that this is that very history. We get a story (and a few references to several more) about Harry’s youth and we see him for the “first” time outside of his Oslo comfort zone – and we see one of the critical moments that shapes the man instead of just hearing about it. We see him develop an unencumbered relationship and we see him grapple with his demons – but it all feels so new that even the jaded English reader almost allows for a sort of fresh start.
One of the sad things about coming into the book having read the existing six novels is that I knew, from moment one, who the villain of the piece would be. I tried, desperately, to forget or at least push away the knowledge… but it’s a unique name, one you don’t forget easily. And so the whole time, I knew that things weren’t going to go particularly well for Harry. I was distracted by the colorful characters he met (Andrew and Otto and Birgitte, in particular), but I knew that they were peripheral to the one man who would change the course of Harry’s life irrevocably.
One of my favorite things about this book is to see that Nesbø was always a bit philosophical, a bit ruminative, in his writing – even from this early place (The Bat was written over 15 years ago. Crazy, no?). My favorite quote from this book – an unintentionally poignant one, considering the circumstances of reading this book 7th in the series – goes like this: “Bloody hell, we all change, don’t we. Once something has been experienced, it’s too late, you can’t get back the feeling of experiencing the same thing for the first time. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.”
Fitting and an accurate meta-review of the book itself.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Some things were out of Mr. Nesbø’s control here (looking, again, at you, publishers…) and so what might’ve struck me as a blow-me-down-brilliant debut is instead a refreshingly brisk prequel of sorts – a case dug up from the archives to tide us over until the next story comes around. Knowing where Harry is now and everything he has gone through, it’s hard to ask a reader to care about these early days in terms of anything beyond filling in some knowledge gaps and having a little fun with the old cases. Still, for Harry fans – or for those who haven’t discovered the series yet – the book cannot be missed. Indeed, for the latter, it’s a perfect place to start. Just give it a few more months, til they announce the publication of the translation of the second book. Then you’ll have a glorious ten books (by then) to chow down on, in order.