The Short Version: Harry Hole has survived the events of the Oslo trilogy but the Oslo police force doesn’t look too kindly on him for killing one of their own. But when, just before Christmas, a Salvation Army worker is shot in the middle of a busy street, it’s Hole who gets the case – but is he ready to take on another fight just yet?
The Review: I’ve written, several times now, about how ridiculous it is that Jo Nesbø’s terrific Harry Hole novels were published out of sequence here in the US – books 3-5 (the aforementioned “trilogy”) from Harper, then books 7-10, then 1 & 2, and now 6. I can at least understand releasing 1 & 2 out of order, but this installment in particular feels unforgivably short-shrifted – but that may be as much due to the novel itself as to the way in which I came to read it.
We catch Harry as a man between two worlds, in this book. The infinitely more complex character development that would come in The Snowman and subsequent novels hasn’t arrived yet, on Harry’s part and also on Nesbø’s, although we see some glimmers of it. Readers who’ve been with the series as its appeared on English-speaking shores are bound to have the thought (more than once) of “oh, Harry” – because we already know what’s coming. We know how things will progress (or not) with Rakel and Oleg, we know about the wounds he’ll pick up (physical and metaphorical), we know far more about Matthias Lund-Helgesen…
And this book does really mark the pivot point. I can see that now, especially in light of the epilogue. Throughout this book, Hole is still haunted by the events of the Oslo trilogy and his taking down of Tom Waaler – events that begin to recede a little bit by The Snowman. He’s an uncompromising and difficult to work with sonofabitch but he also gets results (don’t they all, these rogue detectives)… but, at this juncture, that isn’t enough. He hasn’t won over his new chief, he hasn’t figured out how to be a good man as well as a good cop. But where the earlier books feel like he’s genuinely discovering things, this book felt like treading over old territory; a stopgap, necessary to wrap up a few loose ends and deliver the newly-set stage for the back half of the series.
Still, Nesbø doesn’t let the reader down on a basic level: he delivers the goods of a thriller. In one of his best experiments with the form, he spends several of the opening chapters rotating through points of view over a couple of hours on one particular day – so as Harry knocks on the door, a door opens elsewhere to admit another character. That sort of thing. It, thankfully, doesn’t feel like a gimmick but instead helps build the tension – especially when we don’t know who some of these other characters are or what they mean to the tale.
I also have to say that I learned a hell of a lot about the Salvation Army – which is not only structured like an actual army (bent on our salvation) but its own denominational branch of the Catholic church. I was also intrigued by Nesbø’s inclusion of detail about the hitman’s life – his Croatian upbringing, his time in the war, his unique facial abilities. It tends a little towards cliché, of course, to have an Eastern European hitman who developed his skills (and nickname) during the war – a war that isn’t written about often enough and that all too often gets reduced to something more simplistic, like the place from which excellent assassins are born and bred. Still, I wonder what Sara Nović might have to say about Stankic and his life.
Reading this book around Christmas time (albeit with 70+ degree days on the Eastern seaboard) and in the wake of the terrible gun tragedies over the course of the last year gave me pause, too – made me think more than an ordinary thriller might, about the places where we believe we are safe and the things we do in the shadows. As for the twist, it’s one I should’ve seen coming but didn’t, partially because Nesbø occludes certain things that Harry wouldn’t know (even as he gives us a look over the shoulder of several other characters) and partially because I didn’t want to believe it. When it finally came out, I didn’t put the book down until it was done, even though I was tired and it was nearing on 1:30am – so rest assured that even a lesser Nesbø novel is still very much worth your investment.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I had been looking somewhat forward to having one more adventure from Harry’s past – but, as it turns out, this one is one of the weakest installments in his saga. The mess made by the “Oslo trilogy” still hangs heavy over the characters and the main case of the novel feels ultimately a little unimportant compared to Harry’s desire to finish the work of cleaning up the force. This having been said, the plot is still thrilling and Nesbø retains his gift at pace and turn-of-phrase (both of which are, in turn, skillfully rendered by Don Bartlett) and if you can read the series in order, perhaps you’ll enjoy this one more than I did. But I’ve already been with Harry through too much to go back and see a more modest slice of his life, before things got real.