Friday, March 21, 2008
Jo Nesbø, Nemesis (Sorgenfri)
I can see why Harvill Secker started publishing their translations of Jo Nesbø's novels about Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo police with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th books in the series. The first 2 books sent Harry off to Bangkok and Australia, while the next three are focused mostly on Norway (exotic enough, for readers in the U.S. and U.K., without going further afield)--plus these three novels have a common subplot concerning the criminal enterprise of another detective, Tom Waaler, a drama that extends across all three novels before reaching resolution. But why the publisher brought out the 5th novel first, and then the 3rd, and now finally the 4th, is beyond me, especially given that continued story. That distorted order means that the early readers of Nesbø in English only had to put up with the tension of that extended plot through one long novel instead of three, but the tension of a delayed plot resolution is after all what fiction is about, and knowing the resolution before reading the first two books in which it appears removed some of the reader's pleasure in them, knowing what will happen eventually. The title of Nemesis was also changed in English, but perhaps the original (Sorgenfri, or "carefree" or "sans souci") though it has resonance in the plot, would surely have been a misleading title for a crime novel in English--and both Nemesis and The House of Pain (another title the U.K. publisher considered) also have resonance in the plot, so the title works (better than the distorted order at the very least). These are long books (Nemesis is 474 pages) with a number of red herrings, with insights (sometimes misleading) into the criminal's minds, and with complex plots--but it is the author's skill and language that pulls the reader along through the whole length of the books. The Devil's Star, the first of the books to appear in English, begins with a 7-page bravura performance in which the narrative follows a drip of blood through as it runs through a 100-year-old building, tracing the history of its construction along the way. This passage also provides metaphors with which Devil's Star ends and for the name of Tom Waaler, Harry's real "nemesis" in all of these three books. Nemesis also begins with a cleverly designed opening chapter, threading Harry into a bank robbery in an entertaining way as the reader gradually figures out what's going on. The plot overall is crammed with so many premature (and incorrect) solutions to the crimes that the reader may feel as if he or she (as much as the detective) is being toyed with a bit (though the tension is released and wound back up again repeatedly in the process, an effective device overall). The plot finally comes back around again to its starting point, with much mayhem in the wake of all those mistaken conclusions on the part of the police. And at the end, there is what would have been a tantalizing taste of where the series was going (except that we got that book first, so we know how it turns out, already). I'll stop complaining--but I will recommend these books (and I do highly recommend them) to new readers in the order they were published (Redbreast, Nemesis, Devil's Star--no need to wait for the first one, apparently being translated, much less the second, apparently not being translated). You'll want to shake Harry and point him in the right direction because you know something he only suspects, and you may get frustrated with the Waaler plot as it distracts us (and Harry) from the more immediate crimes that form the plot of each book--and Waaler threatens almost to become that cliche of mystery fiction, the master criminal who lurks behind every crime. But the Waaler plot has the effect of immersing us in Harry's world, the world of the depressed and alcoholic detective--and the world of Oslo, which is very much present in the texture of the narratives, in its present day, its history, and its culture. The characters are lively and fully realized, even the bit players. Harry teeters on the brink of alchoholic despair, in some novels more able to cope than in others, but his troubles, his conscience, and his persistence (with no self-righteousness, no sense of purpose other than to keep on going) are very engaging. He's a more "real" character than some of the other Scandinavian detectives currently showing up (Wallander is quite real, Irene Huss and some others perhaps less so). And I can't resist going back to Devil's Star now, to revisit how the Tom Waaler story develops--a personal testament to the pull that the story has on the reader, and the skill of the author in creating it.