Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Scandinavian pentagrams (Jo Nesbø)

What was up in Norway and Sweden in the last years of the twentieth century and the early years of this one? I wrote recently about The Glass Devil, the third of Helene Tursten's novels translated from Swedish into English, and last night I finished Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star.

Satanism and pentagrams figure in both books in a specific, highly similar way, and not just as a plot element. The authors' use of satanic motifs says much about their attitudes toward religion and evil in their own countries, it seems to me, and I'll hope to ask Helene Tursten about this in Toronto in two weeks. I'll refrain from saying more, lest I give away plot elements, but I invite comment from anyone who has read both novels. And if you haven't read them, then do so.

Nesbø's Harry Hole is an alcoholic Oslo police detective called in to work a murder case only because so many of his colleagues are out sick or on summer holidays (the weather is just one of several familiar elements that Nesbø uses in odd and unexpected ways. Steaming streets. Fraying tempers. Long, hot summers. You've seen it before, but in Scandinavia?) Hole has come close to drinking his way off the force, and for much of the novel, his dismissal papers lie on a desk, awaiting his boss's signature.

The young woman's killing, with seemingly ritual elements, including specific, selective mutilation of her body, is followed by two more, which means postponement of the end for Harry Hole's career. Hole uses oddly gained insights, keen guesses, good detective work, and thoroughly modern technical means to track down the killer. A confrontation with the murderer ensues, though not the climactic one. The life-and-death meeting, an effectively chilling one – and it's not with the killer – comes later.

The novel is rich in incident, in subplot, in deliciously slowed-down narrative passages, but the centerpiece is the protagonist. Hole is the most alcoholic fictional detective I have ever come across. He passes out, he sleeps poorly, and he is tortured by nightmares from his past. Yet he is oddly accepting of his fate, if not passive, and this makes him compelling figure and likeable.

He's a good detective, too, able to rely on unexpected intuitions and constantly analytical of his own ways of seeing and hearing. And not just of his own ways. As the investigation nears its peak and the tension builds, Hole compares a seemingly perfect crime to a perfectly tuned piano: There is something off, suspicious, not quite right about either. The crime part of the insight is Hole's. The piano part is from Duke Ellington.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was not as impressed by the Jo Nesboro book as some of our fellow crime bloggers. I liked the character of Harry Hole a lot, but thought the book too long for its content, and it got too hung up on itself. It was definitely good, but not as good as other scandinavian noirs I've read. I haven't read Thurston so can't meet your challenge, sorry! But Karen Meek has read both, as I've read her reviews on Euro Crime. Probably so has Karen Chisholm (renamed as AustCrime).

April 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the problem, if any, was that The Devil's Star may have been a bit too sprawling rather than too long, if that makes sense. Those long, almost microscopically detailed passages of narrative that opened the novel, for instance -- I'm not quite sure what they were there for or how they fit with the rest of the novel. But I sure did enjoy reading them.

The many bits of this sprawling novel may not have fit perfectly together, but the bits were almost all good.

I saw that Karen Chisholm changed her blog's name, which may help avert confusion with It's a Crime! (or a mystery...). Will she now change her own name to avoid confusion with Karen Meek?

April 12, 2007  
Blogger sally906 said...

Hi Peter

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I loved this novel as well - and I have put 'Redbreast' on my TBR list as would love to go back and read how the tension arose between Harry and his investigation partner.

I think you have described 'the feel' of the novel very accurately

Hoo Roo

April 13, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, that will be one more reason to want to read The Redbreast. Waaler, the colleague/adversary, is an interesting character, if over the top at times, and one of the surprises in The Devil's Star. He seems at first a version of that stock police-procedural character, the hard-working and ambitious up and comer, but Nesbø soon makes something more of him.

I often notice the feel of a novel more than other elements -- its adherence to or disregard of traditional mystery rules, for instance. The feel is generally what keeps me reading.

April 13, 2007  

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