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Review: The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

Over the last decade, Nordic Crime, or Scandi-Noir if you prefer, has become a runaway success. The Scandinavian mindset, mixed with glacial landscapes and equally cold killers, have made Scandinavian writers the go-to guys for discerning crime readers.

From Maj Sjowall and Per Walloo to Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, the wider world has finally come to appreciate the Scandinavian sensibility.

The Leopard is Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo's sixth book in English translation. Following on from the enormous success of his last novel, The Snowman, he is being hailed as the next Stieg Larsson (there's actually a sticker on the cover of The Leopard saying exactly that).

The Leopard begins with the young -- and beautiful -- detective Kaja Sollness heading for Hong Kong to find Harry Hole, the legendary detective who solved the Snowman case but who was deeply traumatised by the experience, not least because it cost him his wife and son.

A new killer is on the loose, killing women with a gruesome torture tool called Leopold's apple, drowning them in their own blood, and the Norwegian police need Hole's expertise. But Hole is in debt with the Triads and nursing an opium addiction. When Kaja locates him, she persuades him to come home.

Hole agrees because his father is dying in an Oslo hospital but declines to work on the case. Still, it's not long before he is caught up in it, fitting pieces into place, tracking down suspects and more dead bodies.

Hole, who works for the police department, is constantly undermined by Kripos, the Finnish version of the FBI, and Hole's attempts to solve the case are constantly thwarted by the ego-driven head of Kripos, Mikael Bellman.

Nesbo has really found his stride here, his storytelling is controlled as he takes us on a trip from rural Norway to Sydney to Leipzig to the Congo and Hong Kong. He brings in threads from his previous novels, too, in a seamless way, introducing Harry's former colleague Katrine Bratt, now in a psych ward, who he uses to break into databases for him (usefully, she can't be prosecuted as she is not considered of sound mind).

There are enough allusions to Hole's wife and son and his previous triumphs to make you want to read the previous books and Nesbo is careful not to confuse the reader.

If you like detective fiction, you'll love this. The only thing that doesn't work so well for me is the incidental first-person accounts from the killer. They seem a little cheesy in this otherwise sophisticated novel.

Nesbo writes smart blockbuster fiction but with a melancholy and intelligent edge. Some of the crime scenes are so vividly brutal it's hard to forget them (I still can't get the gruesome bath murder out of my head).

Hole is a classic noir detective with a modern twist. He has Chandleresque moments: "There were two options. The smart one, which was to ring Bellman. Or the stupid one, which was to go it alone."

You can guess which option Harry takes.

He's got big problems with drugs and alcohol. His emotions are in a terrible way and he doesn't really know where to put them. Every woman and boy he sees reminds him of his wife and son. Those women who do like him get pushed away.

He is committed to solving crimes but is insanely paranoid about his colleagues. There is a leak in his unit, feeding information to Kripos, which keeps them one step ahead. It is not who Hole suspects though, which is another blow to his faith in humanity.

When in Kigali, he sees a group of children and men carrying a big cat bound to a pole by its legs.

When he asks about it, his driver says: "Hit by car. That one is almost impossible to hunt. It is rare, has large territory, only hunts at night. Hides and blends into environs during the day. I think it is very lonely animal, Harry." And he could be talking about the cat, the serial killer, or indeed, Harry Hole himself.

Indo Review