Wednesday, March 26, 2008

revisiting Jo Nesbø

It's rare for me to reread a crime novel until a considerable time has passed (are there some of you out there who do reread them frequently?). Plot is too easily remembered and too much a part of most crime fiction to get a lot of pleasure out of rereading a book that you remember fairly well. But I just finished rereading Jo Nesbø's Devil's Star, because of the disturbed order in which the novels have been translated. The most recently translated, Nemesis, leaves a plot line unfinished that reaches its conclusion in Devil's Star, which actually was the first of the author's books to be translated into English. Since it had been several years since I read Devil's Star, when it was first out, I decided to follow the hanging plot on to the end (again) and also to see whether Devil's Star holds up to a rereading. My conclusion: Devil's Star is probably the best of the 3 Nesbø books we have in English. Nesbø specializes in red herrings and false conclusions, and there are plenty of them here--but fewer than in Nemesis, and to better effect. There are lots of plot elements that could have been cliches (serial killer, blood diamonds, a Nazi past, devil worship, and so on) but Nesbø cleverly undermines the cliche elements and uses each of them in a positive, believable manner. I should also correct one thing I've said before: that Devil's Star begins with a bravado performance that follows a drop of blood through a 100-year-old house. Actually it's rainwater that the narrator follows as it flows into the house, tracing the construction methods and materials along the way through the cracks and picking up a few drops of fresh blood along the way (plus some blood mixed in with the builder's mortar in the original construction): the elegance of that narrative performance actually carries right through the novel, which repeatedly returns to water and to building materials, straight through the end when Harry Hole, the main character of the series, tastes the same egg-like flavor that appears in that first chapter, a sign of the blood in the mixed mortar. One advantage of rereading a large and well-written novel is that, with the plot less important to the reading experience, the structural metaphors of the story (which are in this case, indeed, structural metaphors) become clearer. Regarding characters, the naturalism of Nesbø's style keeps them lively even in a re-encounter. Someone responded to my previous post on Nesbø with a request to explain what I meant when I said that Hole was more "real" than some other Scandinavian fictional detectives, such as Irene Huss--what I mean is that Hole is more completely realized in his internal life, in all its inadequacies, failings, accomplishments, addictions, and so forth. Compared to Hole, Huss seems a bit naive (especially in The Torso), though I must admit that her balance between career and family is perhaps a more "real" reflection of a police detective's life than the more dramatic extremes of Hole's life. But though Irene is sympathetic and fully realized, Hole is more memorable as a character per se (not a good thing, I suppose, if you follow the logic of some of the original pulp noir novels, whose heroes were fairly anonymous). Any arguments, about that statement or my assessment of Nesbø and Devil's Star?


Anonymous said...

It's eerie to read this post, because although I haven't read Nemesis yet (only just out in HB in the UK), I have recently read Redbreast, and some months ago, Devil's Star. I liked Devil's Star, but not as much as some other readers/reviewers. The aspect I liked best was Harry Hole's character, and least was the murder story. As usual, I gave away my copy of the book (as I only keep those I know I may re-read, and I didn't like DS "that" much).
However, having read Redbreast, chronologically earlier, I wanted to re-read Devil's Star because I found Harry Hole's life, thoughts, as well as Ellen and Rakel (and their characters) so fascinating. I had forgotten what happened to Tom Wahler in it, so I found myself in the bookshop this afternoon flicking through Redbreast to remind myself.

I think that when I do get hold of a copy of Nemsis, I will read all three again, just to sort out the order of events and experience them, and the build-up of inner tension in Harry, in the right order. I agree that he's an amazing character, although in Redbreast, as in Devil's Star, I found the murder plot over-convoluted and unconvincing (all those old men).

I haven't yet read Huss, but I like the characters of Rebecka in Asa Larsson, Annika in Lisa Marklund, and Martin Beck, and Ann Lind (though I've only read one Kjell E.) None of them is quite like Harry, though, I agree -- he is more emotionally intuitive.

Uriah Robinson said...

I too have not read Nemesis yet and am still confused over why the Nesbos have been published in this order.
But The Devil's Star stood out for me as one of my best reading experiences of 2007. The characters are just incredibly real and I enjoyed the plot twists and turns. Of course anyone over the age of seventy can probably remember the Nazi occupation of Norway and this is why it plays a big part in their crime fiction.
Harry Hole and Tom Waaler carry on the tradition of Holmes and Moriarty. The flawed but heroic detective chasing a totally amoral ruthless villain who seems to have all the advantages.
I did enjoy The Redbreast even reading it out of order but I don't think it was quite a good as Devil's Star.

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Material Witness said...

Great post, and I am particularly glad I read it because I had no idea that The Devil's Star followed Nemesis chronologically, and I had been wondering when Nesbo would complete the Tom Waaler thread. It has now jumped right up the to do list.

These books are genuinely excellent and I'd make again a point I made in my Nemesis review: that the translation is first class. I'm currently reading Unseen by Mari Jungstedt and am enjoying it, but some of the language grates. It's just not quite right and I wonder how much better the book would be if it had been written better in English.

But Don Bartlett, who translates for Nesbo and KO Dahl has absolutely nailed the writing in their books.

Anonymous said...

I've read the first two Mari Jungstedt books too, and I agree about the translation - it is not as assured as Don Bartlett or other Scandinavian translators. Maybe it is significant that the MJ translations are American English, not English English?

One excellent translation I read recently is Frode Grytten's The Shadow in the River. The translation brilliantly captures colloquialisms and the mood of the novel.

Rick Simpson said...

Large thanks to Glenn Harper and all other commentators here for an absorbing and provocative discussion of the formidably gifted and accomplished Jo Nesbø. I received just today the American version of The Redbreast, a review of which in the New York Times several months ago brought Nesbø to my attention. I read Norwegian, so I skipped the translation and found the original versions and read them in chronological order. I think you all have good reason to be concerned about the loss of that sequence in the English translations. Nesbø builds intense momentum of many kinds, the most important, I think, being the development of Hole's complex character. The movement of the six books through to the last paragraph of Frelseren (The Savior), and I do mean the very last paragraph of the epilogue, is magnificent. Svein Egil Omda, in Stavanger Aftenblad, has said (my translation here), "If he'd written in English, he'd have long since been world-famous [lit. "a world name"}. Absolutely. Nesbø writes rings around someone like John Grisham, for example. -- Looking forward to further conversation with you all about Nesbø. -- By the way, on the great question of whether and how to re-read crime fiction, I've tried it with what for me is one of the great series, Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder books. One way to talk about how good Block is in that series is that I found each of the books if anything even more spellbinding and moving. One essential question, I think, is whether the writer is powerful, moving, and impressive--even beautiful--at the level of the word, the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph. If the writer is that good, then whatever's in front of one's eyes at the moment carries such power that knowledge of the outcome is simply forgotten. Block's one of the best I've ever seen that way, and the effect is not at all lessened by the wonderful characters, many of whom, especialy Scudder, can seem at a very deep level like treasured friends. -- Again, thanks to all commentators.

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