Monday, July 22, 2013

Jo Nesbø's Global Crime and Crimefighting Network

Jo Nesbø, The Bat: The First Inspector Harry Hole Novel

When Australian police find a beautiful Norwegian expat’s body on a secluded coast, Oslo detective Harry Hole (HOO-leh) joins the Sydney police investigation. But he finds himself stymied by bureaucratic intransigence and Sydney’s carnivalesque gay community. When his prodding uncovers a years-long serial murder spree, Harry sacrifices his sanity and goes off the rails to bring his target down.

Jo Nesbø’s procedurals have earned high praise in his native Norway since his 1997 debut, but his work has dribbled into international markets, completely out of sequence. Nesbø’s English-language publisher calls this “The First Harry Hole Thriller,” and it reflects its dated 1997 setting—we keep forgetting about the scarcity of cell phones or the early, sluggish Web. This gives it a naive quality almost like Agatha Christie.

The story roughly breaks into two halves. In the first, Harry’s local contact, a Europeanized Aboriginal named Andrew Kensington, seems downright uninterested in the case. Andrew drags Harry into a succession of strange meetings, introducing him to a panoply of eccentric characters and colorful personalities. Harry repeatedly complains about Andrew’s seeming wild hairs. But a darkly sophisticated pattern starts to emerge.

As Harry pushes his one lead, one brutal encounter upends everything that came before, forcing Harry, suddenly alone, to track a killer who has taken a sudden interest in Harry. When the killer targets a woman Harry’s taken a shine to, Harry must make an impossible choice: risk the woman he loves or risk losing his quarry. He quickly learns that everything he knows about criminology is flat wrong.

Nesbø distinguishes this thriller from the seemingly limitless interchangeable paperback mysteries with his laser-like focus on character. From the beginning, Harry shows a casual attitude toward procedure, playing his investigation by ear, openly chafing at rules and limitations. His finely-honed intuition leads him to remarkable moments of insight. His Columbo-like gift for “just one more question” repeatedly unlocks the right evidence at the right moment.

But Harry offsets his finely honed investigative discernment with a self-destructive streak like the broad side of a barn. If he feels stymied in the first half, it’s because he’s trying to accommodate official channels. He starts winning against his enemy only when he puts himself in situations that could easily kill him. Criminal scum fears and respects Harry because he’s mere inches removed from becoming one of them.

Not that Harry wants to implode. He tries to do well, follow rules, make friends, and even court a woman. But he sabotages himself so thoroughly, we suspect he’s doing it on purpose. The woman he loves is also a material witness, so their relationship skirts the law, especially when the killer spots her as Harry’s greatest weakness. When the rules impede his investigation, he chooses results over process.

Harry plays the perpetual outsider, asking questions that seem obvious to his colleagues. His unique perspective unblocks longstanding stalemates because he doesn’t share others’ blinders. Important clues lie in Aboriginal myths that the Australian characters have grown bored hearing, but which Harry encounters for the first time. He talks to people he doesn’t know others ignore, and focuses on details others see as mere background.

Which perhaps explains why international readers have embraced Nesbø over the last eight years or so. Though we recognize and understand how Nesbø fits neatly into the genre that gave us Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he doesn’t share our English-speaking literary expectations; he tells a story for his own native Scandinavian culture. We know what kind of story he’s telling, yet it remains exhilaratingly foreign.

Nesbø’s episodic style takes some getting used to. His very short chapters combine copious dialog and Harry’s internal speculations into an atmosphere unlike typical American or British detective thrillers. Nesbø often introduces characters and details that appear tangential, not just at first, but for many chapters afterward. Only tenacious readers will realize how tightly constructed Nesbø’s prose actually is.

Because at root, Nesbø tells a different kind of story. Neither a mental puzzle nor a jaded procedural, Nesbø would rather witness what kind of person makes a life wrangling lawbreakers. Who would choose to plug the gap between honest citizens and the criminal subculture? Somebody, ultimately, who belongs to both worlds, and thus to neither.

Harry Hole makes an intriguing character, and the parallel between his personal disintegration and his investigative success is a real eye-opener. Longtime Nesbø readers will welcome this addition to his translated canon. New fans will find this a good place to begin Harry’s story.

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