Intricate, breakneck plotting make ‘Phantom’ an addictive page-turner


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.