The Short Version: Harry Hole is busy drinking his demons into silence in the wake of the Toowoomba case when he’s plucked from Norway and dropped into Bangkok in the wake of the Norwegian ambassador’s murder. Trying to stay sober and a stranger in a strange land, Hole finds himself neck deep in a case that he didn’t ask for – but that he’ll see through, come what may…
The Review: I’ve already said my piece about how ridiculous it was for the powers-that-be at Viking to publish the Harry Hole novels out of order – but where the first novel was meant to introduce us to a man who we already knew quite well, this is character development. This is a story rather unlike any of the other Hole novels and it’s an interesting anomaly. The reader does, in a strange sort of retrospective gaze, understand certain things about Harry now – why he heads to Southeast Asia when things really go south later in the series, the scar on his hand, even the drug addiction – but where the Toowoomba case is the origin story and was arguably necessary to understand where Harry came from, this story feels slight and incidental. We don’t find any sudden realizations about Harry here – rather, we’re treated to another slice of his life-that-was.
All this is to say, I don’t feel as annoyed about reading this novel out of sequence.
It’s also arguably the most formulaic of the series. This isn’t a bad thing – Nesbø has the gift of being able to elevate even the most predictable of mysteries into something gripping and twisting – but it does lend the proceedings a certain compression. The novel begins and it ends and it feels entirely self-contained, in terms of the greater arc. Where the other novels feel more connected (Rakel and Oleg and Harry’s family – not to mention all mostly being set in Norway), this is a standalone sort of adventure. As such, the focus falls on the setting and the case – and the former is a standout, for sure.
It seems as though, according to the brief note at the beginning of the novel, Nesbø was in Bangkok when he wrote this and he paints the sort of vivid picture that comes from being in a place you’re writing about. The gauzy, almost-Blade Runner-esque city with its teeming stalls and absolutely insane streets and the sort of seediness you associate with nights lit by flickering neon is a character all its own here – and it’s arguably the most interesting thing about the novel. To see Harry, a towering grim blonde giant, amidst a culture so unlike his own… it’s a delightful dichotomy and one that Nesbø seems to revel in presenting. Harry stands out and that discomfort – kind of like a faint, consistent hangover – colors the whole book.
The case itself is… well, it’s engaging and the twists all hit their marks, but it felt a little perfunctory at times. There’s a larger issue at play here – the ultimate capitalist success that is Southeast Asia, where anything can be purchased for the right price – and while Nesbø attacks it at perhaps the most disgusting and thus easiest entry point (child prostitution), we’re left with a resounding feeling of futility at the end of the novel. Harry manages to take down a couple people, manages to save a life or two, but the reader has the understanding that, just like the bugs of the title, there are an unknowable number of cases behind the wall that you can’t see. And you’ll never be able to squish them all. I wonder if that – that sense of continually fighting an uphill battle against the forces of terrible people – is what drives Harry through the rest of the books. Perhaps this novel does shed a little more light on Harry, after all.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A terrifically well-executed mystery, dropping our chilly Nordic detective into another locale halfway ’round the world that strikes him as utterly foreign – and as a result, we get to watch him grow ‘out of his element’, as it were. Perhaps it’s good to read these novels after the rest of the series – having established what Harry is like at home before we see him take off for parts more exotic. And yet, there’s a sense of history in these stories – a slight release of tension because we know what will go on to happen to Harry. The stakes, high as they might get, are always hobbled.