Saturday, June 15, 2013

The first Harry Hole: Jo Nesbø's The Bat

I had seen several reviews of The Bat comparing it not altogether favorably with the later Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbø, but when I had the chance (via NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday) to see a copy i jumped at the chance. And I thought The Bat was very good, showing both Hole and Nesbø at an early stage of what has become one of the most succesful Scandinavian crime series.

The Bat begins with Harry's arrival in Sydney, Australia, where a Norwegian woman has been murdered: he has been sent both to aid the Sydney police and to redeem his own career (already disgraced by his alcoholism). The book takes a while to get going, as Harry makes contact with various police, friends of the dead woman, and other denizens of Sydney, including members of an underground that includes prostitutes, pimps, and performers in a touring circus and a boxing circuit.

When the book starts to pick up momentum, all the characteristics of the later books are present: Harry's self-destructive behavior, violence (meted out to Harry himself and to victims of what turns out to be a serial killer, another characteristic of the series), and the pain of love. There are segments that are not as fully exploited for maximum effect as we can see in some of the later books, but overall the story is not only promising, in terms of projecting the effectiveness of later books, but also an enjoyable story on its own.

And a bonus is considerable information about Harry's early life and formative years, some of which is reflected in later books, but never in as much detail. Some of these episodes slow the story a bit, but for fans of the series the digressions are definitely welcome. We learn in particular about Harry's family and his first love, who is a lingering influence on his life and the subject of most of his dreams and reminiscences in The Bat.

WE also learn a good deal about Aboriginal culture, which lies behind the book's title. These passages are perhaps not as completely integrated into the story as is the case with some contemporary Australian crime fiction (particularly that of Adrian Hyland), but is still well done and essential to both the atmosphere and the plot. Sydney is also very evocatively portrayed; I don't know how much time Nesbø spend in the city, but the setting is very convincing.

I read the book as a digital galley on an iPod touch, which can be a bit challenging, particularly with a very long book--fortunately The Bat isn't quite as long as some of the later books in the series, and the story moves along quickly enough that I didn't find the small screen and the constant page-turning any obstacle to the pleasure to be had from the book. Whatever your reading method, The Bat is well worth reading, whether it's a flashback (for devoted readers of the Harry Hole books) or a first introduction to the series.

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