Jo Nesbo, whose crime thrillers have sold more than 10 million copies in Europe and the United States, has been anointed as the latest king of Scandinavian noir, the heir to the addictive-page-turning throne left vacant by the death of Stieg Larsson.
But reading his books in Los Angeles brings to mind a different archetypal noir figure: Michael Connelly’s tortured LAPD detective Harry Bosch.
Nesbo’s detective, who is featured in nine of his 16 books, including his latest, Phantom, is also named Harry. Harry Hole.
Like Bosch, Hole is an obsessive, depressive, combative, hard-drinking genius who views his city through bleak eyes even as he sacrifices his own sanity and relationships to save it.
His city is Oslo. Not the bright, social welfare state with the beneficent king; no, this Oslo is a dark and decaying place, haunted by its Nazi past, where drug addicts and murderers roam with impunity and the police force is too corrupt or politicized or stupid to do anything about it.
In previous books, Hole spent his time fighting to save the police bureaucracy from itself, even as he raced around the city trying to track down diabolical killers before they struck again. By the time Phantom begins, Hole has retired from the Oslo police department and moved to Hong Kong to try to sober up.
But of course, he comes back. Oleg, the son of his one true love — a woman, it goes without saying, that Hole has left because of his own demons — is in jail for murder. Hole wants to find out whether the boy really did it, and whether there is more to the story.
Because he is Harry Hole, he turns up in a linen suit and goes straight to a seedy hotel in a rundown part of town, where his interaction with the desk clerk is part comedy, part existential crisis.
Asked to fill in his date of birth on a registration form, Hole muses: “He had always liked fixed routines, discipline, order. So why had his life been chaos instead, such self-destruction and a series of broken relationships between dark periods of intoxication? The blank boxes looked up at him questioningly, but they were too small for the answers they required.”
There are some readers who will feel such prose itself amounts to a petty crime. But even many of them will be helpless in the face of Nesbo’s brilliant, breakneck plotting, which sends Hole back and forth across Oslo, unraveling an intricate series of clues about the city’s drug trade and its police force, which is as corrupt as ever.
No matter how desperate things get, there is always also time for a little romance. At one point, following a knife fight as various pursuers close around him, Hole closes his own neck wound with duct tape and then heads off to a fancy hotel for a rendezvous with a doomed love.