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By Jo NesbÝ
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011 ($25.95)
Reviewed by Larry Jung
Cops the world-over turn to alcohol to cope. Cops in Norway are no different in this respect. Inspector Harry Hole's personal life and professional life are a mess. Harry cannot shake off his feelings of guilt and remorse for each of his police partners killed in action. He is haunted with nightmares. The only way Harry can cope is the oblivion of alcohol, which has ruined his career. Once a star performer, Harry has become unreliable. He at times doesn't bother to show up for work for weeks at a time. Harry is treated like a drunken has-been by his police colleagues. Even Harry's boss, who in the past has covered for Harry, has little faith in him. Harry's attempt at reform comes too little too late. Only recently has Harry taken up running and weight training and sworn off drinking. He allows himself the single vice of smoking.
Harry has the usual damaged cop-woman relationship. A woman could do better than Harry, and Harry knows this. But NesbÝ is too good a writer to use this as a formula or a stereotype (character tag) like only wearing garish vests, never leaving the apartment, having the martini shaken and not stirred. His unresolved emotional turmoil with Rakel makes Harry that much better at understanding his prey. Rakel, for her part, chooses not to be in a relationship with Harry for all the right reasons. Harry is obsessed with his police work, is an alcoholic, acerbic, insecure, and a neurotic. She recently has found the "perfect" life-companion. The funny part is her son Oleg prefers Harry to her new boyfriend. Perhaps Oleg finds comfort in Harry's humanity and frailty.
What Inspector Harry Hole needs is a major crime to pull himself out of his misery. This happens with the first snows of the year. What at first appears as a routine missing person's case becomes a hunt for a serial killer. Harry is the first to see the pattern of killings indicating the work of someone called The Snowman. Despite being regarded by his boss as being self-willed, arrogant, argumentative, unstable, and alcoholic, Harry parlays his being trained by the FBI on serial killers and his capture years ago of a serial killer in Australia to convince his boss to release police resources to form a team to track down The Snowman. It is now that Harry realizes what he lives for.
Harry could feel the adrenaline rush. The trembling that always came when he got the first scent of the brute. And after the rush came the Great Obsession. Which was everything at once: love and intoxication, blindness and clear-sightedness, meaning and madness. (page 99)
Forget about the publicity blurb on the cover of THE SNOWMAN comparing Jo NesbÝ's writing to Stieg Larson and Henning Mankell. I admit I am probably the only person not having read Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. (I did see the movie on DVD.) Also I haven't read any Henning Mankell. (I did read Mai Sjowall's THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN many years ago.) This is my way of saying that Jo NesbÝ's THE SNOWMAN is too good of a book and NesbÝ is too good of a writer to be stuck in a pigeon hole. Solid plotting. Believable motivations. Well researched. NesbÝ has the talent for writing on a wide variety of subjects: the time it takes to inject a syringe of liquid of a specific density into a human arm, vintage Volvos, the technique of speed handcuffing, the art in reading a person's bluff in high-stakes poker, and the moral bankruptcy of the Liberal press in Norway. I enjoyed THE SNOWMAN so much I went back and re-read large sections of the book. Go out and buy the hardcover; this one is worth the price. (I'm currently reading the Harry Hole novel, THE DEVIL'S STAR.)
Note on Don Bartlett's translation from the Norwegian. Translation from one language to another is more voodoo than science. Though I'm not in a position to judge Don Bartlett's fidelity to the original Norwegian of Jo NesbÝ's, Bartlett's translation reads well. I never found the foreign, and at times unpronounceable, Norwegian names and terms a stumbling block to the pace of the narrative or intruding on the mood of the scenes. By his well-chosen selection of names and terms in the original language, Bartlett has found the balance of preserving the flavor and context of modern Norway with the need of idiomatic English for a crime/suspense novel meant for popular consumption.
Previous Harry Hole books published in the U.S.A.:
THE DEVIL'S STAR
Jo NesbÝ's Harry Hole novel THE BAT MAN won The Glass Key award in 1998. (The Glass Key is awarded by the members of the Crime Writers of Scandinavia every year to a crime book written by a Scandinavian author.)
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