Sunday, 11 April 2010


The Snowman is the fifth Harry Hole novel to appear in English (though it is seventh in the series—the first two have not yet been translated) and was published in Norway in 2007. That these five translations have appeared in only six years is a reflection of the cult following Jo Nesbo has already built up, starting with critical acclaim which has, justifiably continued. Much of this is down to his detective. It's not just that Harry Hole's name looks and sounds better in English, and is far more suggestive, than in its original Norwegian. Hole also has much more affinity to the British audience than most of his nordic counterparts. Although he can give Beck or Wallander a good run in the angst-ridden morose worldview sweepstakes, there's also an alcohol fuelled self-destructiveness about Hole that recalls abrasive Scots. If Resnick drank more vodka, maybe. But you could say Hole's half Taggart half Rebus, and the link from Aberdeen to Bergen is not that tenuous at all.

Especially because The Snowman is set, in part, in Bergen, which is where Hole's new partner, the frighteningly bright and efficient Katrine Bratt, has just transferred. She joins Hole just as he has figured that the disappearance of a young mother, and her scarf left behind wrapped around a snowman, is connected to other disappearances, and that a serial killer is working. The links go back a long way, and all the way to Bergen, and there are letters addressed to Hole himself that make sure he will lead the investigation. Bratt, seemingly the careerist, provides the kind of sharp contrast with Hole that Tom Waaler once did, if in a different way, and it's when they go to Bergen together and Hole uncovers a long-dead corpse that this contrast is at its most telling.

This could be the book where Nesbo moves from cult hero and big seller to mega-stardom, because although it is as compelling as any of the previous books in the series, and Hole's private demons and public difficulties are just as acute, it is also the fastest-paced, and in some ways most conventional thriller yet. Some of the elements are standard enough to be predictable; including at least one major twist and the identity of the killer (in fact, when I was interviewing Nesbo, at a point when I was only part-way into the book, I asked if my guess about the villain was correct and he maintained an admirably straight face). But as Nemesis showed, Nesbo knows how to maintain tension and then crank it up. That Hole's own relationship with Rakel, his ex-lover now engaged to someone else, and her son Oleg, factor into the plot is perhaps inevitable, but this has always been the major conflict of the Hole books, the struggle between 'normal' existence and the drive to do what he needs to justify himself to himself.

Critics often look at the Scandinavian crime boom as if it were a homogenous mass, all depressive detectives and breaking down of welfare states, but the reality is that Nordic crime fictions ranges from relatively traditional who dunnits (although it's hard to find anything you might call 'cozy') to the kind of thing Nesbo has produced: deep novels with social comment set within a framework to Thomas Harris thrillers than the detectives to which he's often linked (by myself as well as others). But what makes it work is the idea that Harry Hole is actually very close to the old fashioned hard-boiled private eyes: an idealist whose hardened crust conceals vulnerability and sensitivity. Miichael Connelly worked another Harry, Harry Bosch into a police setting, and the conflicts, personal and bureaucratic, that such a setting creates for such a character have been emphasized even more in Nesbo's hero. It's a self-destructiveness that, perversely, makes Hole so appealing, but it's Nesbo's ability to weave that character, written engagingly with a sharp eye toward his world, into more and more involved ploys that make these books work so well.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo Harvill Secker £12.99 9781846553486

NOTE: Look for that Jo Nesbo interview at Shots, and here on IT, soon....

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