Monday, October 30, 2017

The Snowman

The Snowman
by Jo Nesbø
translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Recommended Ages: 15+

This serial killer thriller set in Norway struck a chord with me. It might be partly because it features characters with a certain hereditary disease that, I recently learned, runs in my family. But I doubt it. It's also possible that the timing of when the book appeared before me on a supermarket book rack was ideal, with the movie based on it having just come out in theaters. But since I'm too broke to see the movie, that's also pretty iffy. If you bring up the fact that I immediately spotted something about the main character, Oslo police detective Harry Hole, that fit the profile of a profiler as presented by the genuine article - for I paused in the middle of reading this to devour John Douglas' FBI memoir Mindhunter - I would say you're getting warm. But in my opinion, the strongest theory about why this book grabbed me has something to do with this quote, which I scribbled on a notepad that I keep within reach while I read: "When he was young and inexperienced, he thought that a bad memory was a handicap for a detective. Now he knew better" (The Snowman, p. 16).

It isn't just that this sentence was an early clue that I was reading the work of a terrific writer, with a powerful insight into the heart of a complex, troubled character, and the ability to establish a pervasive, unforgettable mood. It's also that I suddenly realized, from those two sentences alone, that hardboiled mystery is not dead. Thank God!

Like the best hardboiled detectives, the cooking fluid that cooked Harry Hole contained a significant percentage of alcohol. In this seventh of (so far) 11 Harry Hole novels, the brilliant detective has gone sober, and is trying to stay that way in spite of daily, almost unbearably strong temptations. It is apparent that he went straight a beat or two too late. The love of his life, Rakel, whose son Oleg in a moment of distraction inadvertently(?) calls Harry "Dad," has decided she can't be with him any more, and is getting married to a nice doctor named Matthias, who works in the anatomy department at the university. His best friend and partner, the late Jack Halvorsen, seems - if I'm picking up the right hints - to have died, just as he was about to become a father, as a result of Harry's drunk driving. He is too afraid of hospitals to visit his beloved mentor, who has had a stroke. And, in spite of his brilliant crime-solving skills, he is still too erratic to have the full confidence of his superiors at Police HQ. They're watching for him to make one misstep, so they can fire him. And unlike Harry, they don't think there is, or ever will be, a Norwegian serial killer. He keeps hoping to spot one.

And then, in this book, he does. But I think he ends up wishing he hadn't.

The killer seems to like women who are married with children. They disappear, never to be found (except the first one) on the day of the first snow every year, and somewhere nearby, a snowman is always found, watching over the scene. As Harry and his new partner Katrine Bratt investigate the crimes, they gradually connect the latest woman's disappearance to the others, and to the vanishing of another hard-drinking, troubled cop 11 years ago in the rainy city of Bergen. At first the missing cop is a suspect. Then a plastic surgeon looks good for it. Then another suspect. Then another, whose identity will blow your mind. But don't worry, the red herrings haven't finished dropping yet. It won't be over until a monster's story is revealed - a story so disturbing it has wrecked my sleep for the last two nights - and he faces off with Harry in a deadly game in which the detective's life, limb, love, and sanity are all at stake.

If I set this book down with the impression that I have been mightily well entertained, it isn't just because the revelation of whodunit was an immense surprise; I've said before that I have a knack for guessing the solution of mysteries, and accordingly, I had this one spotted. But it was the character details that made me shiver, and the bleak, depressive outlook on life that left me aching for Hole, as I have ached in times past for Marlowe, Spade, and Ned Beaumont of the most perfect detective novel of all time, The Glass Key. And don't think I didn't notice the Oslo depicted in this book contains a bar named after that book. I see what you're doing here, Mr. Nesbø. You're transporting hardboiled mystery to a climate where it will keep.

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