Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Snowman

The Snowman
By Jo Nesbo

I've said it once and I'll say it again: Scandinavians are morbid. They tend to be tall, blond-haired and blue eyed (as if that wasn't creepy enough). They have a propensity for burning churches. Their ancient mythology is brutal, savage and tragic and has spawned an entirely unlistenable sub-genre of metal music only appreciated in Scandinavia... and Brazil). They are just neat enough and tidy enough and socialist enough to make you assume they were all born Virgo and they seem to prefer their crime novels on the darker side of macabre.

(Aside: As if to accentuate the point, the Heavy Metal band, Morbid, was Swedish)

Whether it's the cyber-punk horrors of Steig Larsson's Millennium Series or the more sedate brutality of Henning Mankell's Wallander Series, the people of Norway and Sweden seem thrive on extreme violence and murder. When you add Jo Nesbo and his series of novels featuring Harry Hole into the mix, one has to wonder how three of the best (if not most morbid) writers of the last quarter century have all come from the Northern Europe. Must have something to do with lack of sunlight and fjords.

I mentioned three novelists, but as of the writing of this blog post, we seem to be down to just one. With the tragically premature death of Steig Larsson and the last of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels drifting ever so slowly out of the zeitgeist, it is Jo Nesbo that has remained to carry the torch of the Scandinavian crime fiction genre (that absurd title always reminds me of metal heads who go on and on about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal from the late 1970s). And much like Larsson with Lisbeth Salander and Mankell with Wallander, Nesbo has come equipped with a character every bit as intense and intoxicating as his predecessors: Harry Hole.

Detective Harry Hole is what would be produced if John McClane, Bruce Willis's legendary character from the Die Hard franchise somehow begat a child with Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. Brash, bold and dangerous but also self-destructive, and at times hopelessly lost and completely uncertain about his job, Harry Hole is a man with more personal demons than the people he arrests. He makes giant, terrible mistakes and, although not lacking in critical and analytical thinking, he makes wild, sweeping mistakes. Harry Hole is the Hamlet of Scandinavian crime fiction (though without the tragic endings). He is about the most humanized police officer you will ever read in a novel not written by Richard Price. While Lisbeth Salander is deftly hacking into your computer with nary a typo in her code, Harry Hole is mortally wounding the wrong person while trying to fight the urge to chuck a bottle of Jack Daniel's. How can you not root for this guy?

In fact, I spent a lot of time wondering whether Hole was a metaphor for how Nesbo views Norwegians on the world scene. At one point in the novel one of the characters, Arve Stop a media personality, laments that Norway loves the loser. Losers provide stories with grit and tragedy and pain. Winners are uninteresting by nature. One wonders whether Harry Hole is the embodiment of this sentiment. If so, Norwegians have a lot in common with Canadians. It comes with the territory of sidling up next to an economic  and military powerhouse. But I digress.

The Snowman recounts the events of Norway's first really artistic serial killer and it's up to Hole, Oslo's best if not brightest, to lead the investigation. The killer, dubbed the "The Snowman" due to his penchant for building snowmen at the scene of each of his crimes, has somehow flown under the radar of the police for a couple of years. When a new detective, Katrine Blatt, joins the Oslo police force she and Hole begin to make the connections between the victims of several missing persons reports. A series of increasingly grisly murder scenes seem to validate the assertion that they are dealing with something more than the average Norwegian gangland killings and Scandinavian church burners. As the crimes begin to spiral ever closer to Harry Hole, it becomes evident that the killer is engaging in a battle of wits with the policeman himself. Something rotten north of Denmark.

The story is incredibly complex with all sorts of the twists and turns one expects from good crime writing but without the implausible elements that leave many readers rolling their eyes. Often a writer tries to make that one last twist to shake off those final readers who may have actually solved the mystery before the protagonist leaving a bitter taste of the ludicrous in the reader's mouth. Nesbo doesn't go in for such shenanigans. While Nesbo certainly serves enough twists and red herrings to open a seafood bar and grill, they were done with the panache of a writer working at the top of his game. It took the entire first half of the novel for me to realize that trying to stay ahead of the investigation was futile because Nesbo was manipulating the reader with the deft and clarity of vision. Nesbo knew exactly where both the story and the reader were going.

I admit, I had the culprit pegged somewhere toward the end of the second third of the novel but it didn't seem to matter. In fact, I'm actually pretty confident that Nesbo wanted me to guess the killer by then. Like the characters in his book, Nesbo was playing me right into his hands. Knowing the killer hardly dissuaded from the enjoyment of the novel. I simply needed to understand how it all went down. I continued on, often like a reader possessed. The Snowman is so psychologically intense that over the course of the week I spent reading it, my wife repeatedly asked whether something was bothering me. I would always answer with: "Yes... The Snowman is bothering me."

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the superb translation done by Don Bartlett from the original Norwegian. Obviously, I didn't read this in its original language (my Norwegian is a little rusty after 37 years of having never once studied it) but Bartlett conveyed what I can only assume was the intensity and ferocity of the narrative without much compromise. What little may have been lost in translation was lost to me and if the story suffered as a result I was none the wiser.

If you are lamenting the end of the Wallander series or still in mourning over the untimely death of Steig Larsson and you haven't yet read or even heard of Jo Nesbo I strongly urge you to get out there and pick up a copy of The Snowman (or any of the other novels featuring Harry Hole). If you are already a


Man of la Book said...

I read only one Joe Nesbø book and really enjoyed it. I have another on my nightstand and one on my nook.

Great review, makes me want to run out and get the book.


Jenny said...

I've read two books by Scandinavian authors and, yes, they are a morbid bunch. I've no desire to read a book that puts me in a bad mood, though, so I think I'll pass on this one.

Beth said...

What an awesome review! Seriously, hilarious and informative. I can't say that I've read the Larson series and don't plan to, but I CAN say that I've been interested in Nesbo for a while. Interestingly enough, The Snowman has been appearing each time I visit the library and I've fought the urge. I'm always up for smart crime fiction. Have you read Tana French? I like her style, so hopefully I'll enjoy this as well.

And let's talk about Refused. Scandinavian? Yes. And one of my favorite bands despite all the screaming.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

My husband appreciates Norweigan black metal but I see no appeal in it at all (and I like 'normal' metal). You're right about Scandanavians :P

I really enjoyed reading this review, you made me want to pick up the book and crime fiction usually isn't my thing.

Athira said...

Part of me wants to read one of these Scandinavian authors just to see if their books are as gory and twisted as I hear them to be (and I know they are). But the other part gets squeamish about things like that. I bought the Larsson books for the first reason and they stay unread for the second reason. Some day! Great review!

Ryan said...

@Zohar I'll be going back to this well more than once.

@Jenny: Which books did you read?

@Beth I've never read Tana French, but I will now!

@Sam I have had a lifelong love/hate relationship with metal, but virtually everything out of Norway and Sweden is not really my thing (though I suppose I can appreciate it on a certain level).

@Athira Don't let the gore hold you back. The characters alone are worth the price of admission.

Brian Joseph said...

Very amusing commentary!

This sounds intriguing as well as fun. I love these complex mysteries that are also realistic.

I do not think that it is problematic that you were able to guess who the killer was unless it came to you too easily. I like when an author plays fair.

J-9 said...

I keep hearing more and more about Jo Nesbo and I cannot wait to read his books, but I noticed that the first book in his Harry Hole series is The Bat, but it has not been released yet in English. Is it important to read the books in order?

JoV said...

I think the British loves a loser too. When autumn and winter, I do like to pick up a Scandinavian crime and have a hair rising read. That reminds me, I'll start one soon. I read Jo Nesbo's Leopard but not Snowman. I'm reluctant to read the others as I do not appreciate violence and torture.


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