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Review: Thrillers: Phantom by Jo Nesbo

Harry Hole is back, a detective in the classic hard-boiled mode, world weary, flawed, but with a passion for justice. Harry is also Norwegian, and his creator, Jo Nesbo, stakes a claim to being the best crime writer to emerge from Scandinavia.

The comparisons are with Henning Mankel and Wallander rather than Stieg Larsson. The only tattoos in evidence in this, the ninth in the Harry Hole series, are those on the Russian criminals Harry encounters.

Nesbo is himself an interesting character. A promising footballer (until he shattered his cruciate ligaments), after graduation he became a stockbroker and along the way founded a rock band.

Burned out, he went on a trip to Australia where a lifestyle change led to the first Harry Hole novel, which appeared in 1997 (the O is pronounced like the U in Una).

His reputation has grown with each book. The last, The Leopard, was a bestseller and another, The Snowman, is being made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese.

In Phantom, a follow-up to The Leopard, Harry has returned to Oslo after three years in Hong Kong. His alcoholism has been tamed and he is still the dogged investigator of old.

No longer a policeman, he is back to investigate a case already closed, that of a junkie killed by another. He reignites his old relationship with the woman of his life and her son, for whom he was the surrogate father.

He plunges into the other Oslo, an underworld of drugs and crime, a marked contrast to the city's prosperous public face.

On the way we get insights into how the modern drug supply network operates, including a classic account of smuggling by air.

There is a fresh version of heroin on the street and the addicts are queuing up for their fix. It is synthetic, highly potent, and in short supply, controlled by a mysterious new figure on the local scene -- "the Man from Dubai".

His dealers wear trademark Arsenal shirts, his enforcers are Russian, his philosophy is simple. You mess with him -- you die.

Meanwhile, the authorities are preening themselves over an apparent clean-up of Oslo. Throw in sex, hints of official corruption and you have all the ingredients for a page-turner.

As the book progresses, Harry's demons resurface. His Achilles' heel remains the drink and "will he, won't he" is a subtext for much of the book, marked also by his encounters with a strange priest-like figure, complete with clerical collar, who shares the same flop house hotel Harry uses as a base.

But, as the body count mounts and Harry gets close to the truth and to the criminal mastermind, there are unpalatable realities to be confronted.

Another winner for Nesbo.

Sean Farrell

Indo Review