Monday 16 September 2019

Knife by Jo Nesbo: The book's biggest problem is its main character

Crime: Knife

Jo Nesbo

Harvill Secker, trade paperback, 531 pages, €16

Tangle of plotlines: Norway's Jo Nesbo
Tangle of plotlines: Norway's Jo Nesbo
Knife by Jo Nesbo

Norwegian Jo Nesbo is nothing less than a phenomenon: his crime novels, most of them in the Harry Hole series of procedurals, have sold more than 40 million copies. Such is Nesbo's cachet in the genre that he was last year commissioned to contribute to the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

Hole is the classic cop character, veering close to cliché: a brilliant detective; a damaged alcoholic; self-destructive but principled; willing to bend the rules but, on deeper levels, following an unbreakable moral code.

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Fans of the series will probably kill me for this, but to be honest, the book's biggest problem is its main character. The plot otherwise is inventive, fast-moving, enjoyably outlandish in parts and engaging throughout.

Hideous rapist-murderer Svein Finne - known as The Fiancé - is out of jail and out for blood: Harry's. He previously killed Finne's son, another creepo with a sensational nickname - The Vampirist. Harry is on a bender, struggling to deal with being dumped by his wife Rakel. He wakes with blood on his clothes, bruises on his hands, and large parts of the night before missing from his memory. Then police bigshot Katrine - her and Harry have previous, romantically speaking - informs Harry that Rakel has been found murdered in her home. Stabbed to death, which suggests that Finne has carried out his revenge.

But does he have an alibi? Come to think of it, does Harry have an alibi?

Rakel's death is merely the main strand in a bewilderingly busy tangle of plotlines. Finne rapes a woman called Dagny, insisting she carry his baby to term or be killed. An old flame of Harry's, Kaja, begins helping him unofficially investigate Rakel's killing. A former colleague of hers in Afghanistan, Roar - also Rakel's boss - is acting very strangely.

It's pretty good fun, although like all crime novels these days, Knife is at least 25pc too long, and the plot creaks alarmingly in places. I don't mind the unlikely serendipities - that's part of the fun of any mystery - but one or two plot turns stray perilously close to implausible.

It's also a very violent novel, with a few of those vaguely distasteful scenes which linger on rape or torture, usually of women, which are prevalent in schlocky serial-killer movies. Not that I think this stuff is wicked or a dangerous influence on society or anything like that; but it's lazy, gratuitous and a bit sleazy, which is possibly worse.

Still, the many plotlines are resolved smartly, the "whodunnit" genuinely took me by surprise, and there's a great moment of well-earned retribution near the end that will have the Old Testament part of your psyche cheering aloud.

No, my main issue with this latest Harry Hole is, well, Harry Hole. He really is a compendium of all the old clichés of detective fiction, right down to the chain-smoking, growly voice and sexy scar on his face.

In one way, I've no issue with this: mystery writers have been using the classic noir-esque anti-hero since Chandler and Hammett. But at least your Sam Spades and Philip Marlowe's were witty, charismatic, funny; Harry Hole is grim, surly, uncommunicative, self-pitying, selfish. In short, a bit of a jerk.

This makes it all the weirder that virtually every female character wants to sleep with him or is full-on in love with him.

Maybe Bill Hicks was right, and chicks really do dig jerks.

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