Friday, April 29, 2011

A plot with a Hole

Hardly ever have I been so furious at real-world responsibilities. 

There weren't any when I finished The Secret History in 2 days.  That novel, like the one I'm reading now, is a mystery.  I fell in love with mysteries a few years earlier, when my father bought me a seminal Agatha Christie:And Then There Were None.  It became clear to me that when one of these books was good, everything in life felt like time between finding out more.  I never want to guess who the killer is, and I never want to be able to put together the whole story.  When it happens on Law & Order (RIP), guessing correctly disappoints.  With a book it devastates.  And a book has time to do something huge.

Jo Nesbø goes big in He goes to the Eastern Front during WWII, he goes to the Neo-Nazi elements of modern Oslo, and makes side trips to Vienna and Johannesburg.  My man Henning Mankell goes international once in a while.  The ominous global and historical nature of The Redbreast dwarfs Mankell's, and Nesser's, efforts to expand into a truly epic idea, one that dives back into history and explodes onto the page.  The Redbreast has heft, it teaches the reader about a hidden chapter of European history, and the pacing - despite jumps through time and space, and shifting narrators, so often ingredients for distraction and disaster - is pitch-perfect.  I could not put it down. 

Then there's Harry Hole.  This man I absolutely love.  I picture him as Nesbø's author photo on my edition.  This guy smokes cigarettes, weathers leather, and drives an old Ford Escort.  He shaves his head because he feels like it and beds the hot girl.  There's definitely swagger and depth to Wallander, and brooding intelligence.  Van Veeteren has his trademark arrogance and cynicism.  Hole is someone I want to run along with in the action movie, yelling curses and chasing down the bad guy after a sudden epiphany in a trashed apartment.  Nesbø does well with the other major characters, too, all of whom hold distinct identities and consistently engaged my interest when they took over the story. 

Harry, like so many great investigators, dodges the commands of his superiors.  He spots and follows the case outside his official duties, his instincts telling him to seek connections between the black market sale of a German rifle, a bloody murder outside a known Neo-Nazi hangout, and the ongoing activities of a recently acquitted (on a technicality) skinhead murderer.  At first, I had my reservations, as Nesbø took me from Harry's perspective to soldiers on the Eastern front in 1944 and back again to a foreign affairs minister in present day.  The bouncing around and the huge number of characters introduced, however, failed to become an issue.  Nesbø keeps control over the scope of his novel and the crowd within it.

I'm skeptical of books with such ambitious elements.  I couldn't follow Suite Française and its myriad of narrators.  I almost never read historical fiction, perhaps because it feels safer to trust my learning about the past to nonfiction and biography authored by university professors and graying historians.  Somehow I trusted Jo Nesbø anyway.  Briefly I wanted to start a sketch of all the characters to keep track, but Nesbø guides his reader with gentle clues and timely repetitions and I only found myself flipping back the pages once or twice.  The unraveling - I can only tell you that every stumble over strange Nordic names and unfamiliar territory will pay off.  I'm glad I have the next two in the series.  The prior books have yet to be published in the U.S..  I expect they will be soon.  Otherwise I'm going to have to learn Norwegian.


Man of la Book said...

Wonderful review. I recently read my first Harry Hole novel "The Devil's Star" (my thoughts: ) and enjoyed it very much. I'm looking forward to reading more of Nesbø's books and this series.

By the way, kudos for taking the time and spelling the author's name correctly.

Donna Weaver said...

Haven't heard of this series. Thanks for the heads up.

Alan said...

I started this book a while ago, and couldn't get into it. As a result I've put it down and haven't gone back to it.

Jo Nesbo has been billed in the UK as the next Stieg Larsson, and he is getting a lot of coverage in both real and virtual bookstores here. This makes failing to get anywhere with the first of his books that I read especially disappointing.

What Book Today said...

I'm surprised! I loved it, as the review would...imply ;). Next mystery author up for me is Colin Cotterill. I'll be reading the first Dr. Siri Paiboun novel, "The Coroner's Lunch." Have you read him?

Alan said...

No haven't read any of his. Am reading David Hewson at the moment. The first in the Nic Costa series. Set in Rome, I started the series part way through so have gone back to the very first one to "start" from there. Haven't gotten very far but am enjoying it so far.

Will give Nesbo another go, but will perhaps leave it for a couple of books first.

Downing Bray said...

Hi Laura! Thought you might like this article...


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