Friday, 11 February 2011


The Leopard opens with Harry Hole in Hong Kong, losing himself after having triumphed over the Snowman, but having lost his love, Rakel, and her son Oleg in the process. But there's another serial killer on the prowl in Norway, and they need Harry back. The lure of the chase doesn't get Harry to return, but the impending death of his father does, and he heads back to Oslo to find himself caught in the middle of a battle for control of the investigation, between his boss Hagen, and the Kripos boss, Mikael Bellman. Meanwhile, the bodies keep turning up.

Jo Nesbo has pulled out all the stops for this one, though in some ways more is less. There are three continents, a chilling execution device, and an action-packed finale that almost screams out for film adaptation. If this is an opening, or widening, of Hole's appeal, it's a brave thing to do, because Nesbo is already being compared, inevitably, to Henning Mankell, and by setting parts of the book in Africa, and titling it The Leopard, he invites such comparisons (recall The Eye Of The Leopard). In fact, the Harry Hole who returns from Hong Kong, and must stay sober rather than lose himself completely is much closer to Wallander than the Hole of earlier books; less abrasive, more vulnerable, more sympathetic. There's also an element of homage to Thomas Harris here, not just with the arcane torture devices, but also as Hole goes back to the Snowman, and to Katrine Bratt, the brilliant but twisted cop from that book, to help him find this new killer.

But it's also uniquely Nesbo. The plot involves many aspects of rural Norway, and in effect offers two villains, but the most interesting battle is not between them and Hole but between Hole and Bellman, who is the most chilling of all the villains in the novel, even though (or perhaps because) he is a cop. As the labyrinthine plot moves forward, the chess game between Hole and Bellman proves in some ways more suspenseful and dangerous than the pursuit of the killer—the affinity between Harry and the killers he pursues is far closer than that to cops like Bellman.

This conflict brings out the most abrasive parts of the Hole who won so many followers originally, and they may be disappointed in a kinder, gentler Harry. Though, since Nesbo's now billed on the cover as 'the next Stieg Larsson' perhaps Harry needs to be as irresistible to women as Mikke Blomqvist? His relationship with Kaja Solnes, the cop sent to bring him back to Norway from Hong Kong, isn't totally convincing, but it does offer its own shadowy twists, and their last scene is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. Which in the end is what it's all about, and though this is a typically long novel, Nesbo has the ability to keep complicated plot lines going, keep characters in conflict, deal with red herrings, and even in translation make it all feel immediate. He's not the next Stieg Larsson, though he deserves to be that successful, but he does have some of the same ability to convey a wider perspective on the Norwegian world. He's more like, as I suggested earlier, a cross between Mankell and Harris, though Hole is a character either would envy. And in the final scenes of The Leopard, I again thought of Thomas Harris, with a strange echo of Hannibal Lecter and new directions for the character. With Nesbo on top form, that's something to look forward to. It something the very seductive cover of the German edition suggests...

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo
Harvill Secker, £12.99, ISBN 978184655401

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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