It was very instructive for me to read Jo Nesbø’s PHANTOM after having failed to complete Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ INVISIBLE MURDER. Both books have similarities. They both tend to have deep, involved descriptions that include tiny, telling details; they both have that curious Scandinavian trait of constantly mentioning street and place names; and they both have short chapters that tell stories about a vast number of disparate characters, all of which will almost certainly coalesce later in the book.
But there’s a difference.
Whereas Kaaberbøl and Friis’ chapters start to share little vignettes about this character and then that character, leaving you hanging and wondering what the point of each little vignette was, Nesbø has a story arc in each of his little chapters. You get a feeling about pilot Tord Schultz and his compatriot, Sergey, who appear very early on, that their story is going to matter very much to the overall plot. You start to care.
When Nesbø includes italicized sections to represent the dying thoughts of a murder victim (almost a Karin Fossum experimental-type move), it seems realistic as the thoughts not only rail against the dying light as you would expect, but reveal important information at just the right time in the story flow. These little segments aren’t wasted and they aren’t meant to confuse or merely titillate; they serve a real purpose and are satisfying.
Well, as satisfying as any Harry Hole series book can be. In PHANTOM, Hole returns from his exile in Hong Kong to investigate an accusation of murder against Oleg, the boy he helped raise (briefly) with the love of his life, Rakel. It looks like a classic open-and-shut case. Oleg had motivation, opportunity and there is the inconvenient fact he had powder burns on his hands from the gun used to kill the victim. Hole is not convinced, but he’s the only one.
Oleg’s involvement with drugs leads Hole into the very dirty heart of Oslo’s drug trade. A new drug, violin, is taking the city by storm. More powerful than heroin and without the danger of overdosing, it is massively addictive and makes tons of money for the city’s drug lords. It’s also spouting a pretty serious wave of murderous violence and Hole wanders right into this dangerous mix. His efforts to extricate both himself and Oleg from the system keep the reader guessing, biting fingernails and hoping for the best, but worrying that certainly, the worst is about to occur.
A colleague who loves Nordic noir as I do complains that Nesbø is a little too brutal. He is, very much in the Stieg Larsson vein. But his worlds are realistic, his stories gripping, and the Harry Hole series of thrillers is one that you probably should be reading. Try PHANTOM and see what you think. —Mark Rose