For those mourning the death of Stieg Larsson or the increasing deadliness of Henning Mankell's prose, don't give up on the Scandinavian crime novel yet. Knopf certainly hasn't, having lured Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo to its publishing house from rival HarperCollins.
And what a steal. His latest, "The Snowman," is a superb thriller -- smart, stylish, beautifully paced and meticulously plotted. If, in the end, Nesbo resorts to some melodramatic action, he's earned it. I can't wait to see the movie, preferably with striking Oslo settings and Daniel Craig as Nesbo's main man, Harry Hole.
We've seen the likes of Hole before -- the world-weary, middle-aged police detective who lets his work get in the way of lasting relationships, even though he's unconvinced that his work ultimately makes any difference. Also befitting the type, he might even share a trait or two with the bad guys. And, of course, he's a babe magnet.
The familiarity doesn't matter. Nesbo is such an insightful portraitist that Hole and all the secondary characters are convincing at just about every bloody turn. And Nesbo, like other Nordic writers, is not for the faint of heart. Hole is on the hunt for a serial killer whose victims -- mostly female -- disappear. As their bodies start surfacing in the second half of the book, the tone gets ever more gruesome.
Chances are you'll be hooked by then, as Nesbo lays down a trail rich in Nordic atmosphere -- a snowman is left as the killer's calling card -- and in character-driven development. Hole's suspects are finely drawn -- a plastic surgeon who has had contact with at least two of the victims, a cuckolded husband who seems to have it in for other women, a smug TV pundit who may have had affairs with some of the victims.
In this fourth book in the series, Hole has his own problems. His girlfriend, Rakel, has given up on him and has become engaged to another -- though she keeps coming back for a bit of erotica. (Nesbo's not bad at that, either.) And he's determined not to mix business with pleasure, even though his new partner is drop-dead gorgeous.
Despite frustrations with his love life, the state of affairs in Norway and a battle with alcoholism that he seems to be on top of, Hole's outlook isn't as bleak as Inspector Kurt Wallander's in the Mankell series. Although Nesbo seems to swing from the left -- Hole talks about "American society's inherent fascism" at one point -- Nesbo isn't nearly as dogmatic as his Swedish colleagues. And the psychological aspects of the novel are on a par with Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford mysteries.
Ultimately, though, what sets Nesbo apart is his ability to keep the pages turning -- and there are almost 400 of them -- with such intellectual dexterity. Hole keeps persevering, seemingly, because he's so good at what he does and doesn't settle for easy explanations -- a lesser detective could be excused for not seeing how red all the herrings are. Nesbo doesn't settle for easy ways out, either. For procedural fans looking for the next Wallander, Nesbo has produced an ace in Harry Hole.
The Hole stories
On the surface, Jo Nesbo's detective, Harry Hole, isn't that different from many of his contemporary colleagues -- macho with a touch of sensitivity, jaded but driven, instinctive but logical. What sets him apart is Nesbø's ability to make the world as the Oslo detective sees it so alive with the possibilities of excitement and danger (at least when he's not caught in procedural red tape or his personal battles with alcoholism).
The first two novels -- "The Bat Man" and "The Cockroaches" -- aren't available in the United States yet and take place in Australia and Thailand, respectively, where Harry is on loan.
"The Redbreast" was the first to be published here, by HarperCollins, and centers on Harry's investigation into a neo-Nazi underground in Finland. President Clinton figures in the plot, and Harry meets his on-and-off girlfriend, Rakel. While Rakel is away in "Nemesis," Harry has a fling with an ex-girlfriend who winds up murdered, as does a seemingly innocent victim in a bizarre bank robbery.
Harry investigates a possible serial killer who cuts off a finger of each of his victims in "The Devil's Star," and he thinks his new partner might have some satanic leanings himself. "The Snowman" is the seventh book in the series and the first to be published by Knopf, which will bring out the sixth and eighth books in the series, "The Redeemer" and"The Leopard," over the next two years.