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Nesbo scores again with gripping drug thriller

phantom Jo Nesbo (Harvill Secker, London 2012. English translation copy, Don Bartlett 2012)

A scuttling rat and a dying junkie, two scavengers with dire prospects. Jo Nesbo's crime thriller Phantom begins grimly and continues in the same vain.

But hope is at hand once again in the form of Nesbo's bestselling protagonist Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-er), jaded and flawed as he is. Nesbo's serial detective character is scarred, visibly and emotionally, but honest and dogged. He is alone and vulnerable, in contrast to his adversaries.

In earlier novels Harry has been a police inspector; an alcoholic and a loose cannon but a committed and bona fide law enforcement officer. He has had to battle his way through a series of Nesbo-created challenges.

In Phantom, Harry returns from three years in exile working as a debt collector in Hong Kong. He is drawn back to Oslo on hearing that Oleg, the son of his former lover, has become a drug-addicted drifter charged with the murder of a fellow drug addict, Gusto Hanssen.

Oslo is not a big city and the action plays out in a condensed area over a condensed period of time. Without preaching or overstatement, Nesbo highlights the chronic and destructive consequences of drug addiction.

Things are not as they seem when Harry returns; the problem festers from a highly malignant source trafficking 'violin', a new synthetic drug.

Harry feels partly responsible for the now bitter and defensive Oleg and he reflects on the happy though brief times he shared with him and his mother, Rakel and he is driven with a self-destructive force toward finding the unpalatable truth.


As the plot unfolds, Harry's wounds become increasingly debilitating but the greatest danger are Harry's personal crises. His life hasnegatively affected the lives of others and he is trapped by his need to redeem himself. The conflict of revealing the truth and causing further damage to others creates hesitation, but Harry must follow through on what he has started.

Variations in the narrative perspective dovetail well enough as Gusto and the third-person narrator advance the plot and offer insights into the past and the current action. It's a contrived device but adds detail and suspense as the narratives climax.

Nesbo creates some effective tension and Harry earns our admiration, frustration and sympathy. The drug lord is cleverly present more often than first thought, but some of the other characters lack depth and are less convincing, such as the wooden Hans Christian, Rakel's lawyer and new companion.

Phantom will be snapped up quickly by Harry Hole followers, and for others who haven't yet experienced the twists and turns that Jo Nesbo so effectively creates in his crime thrillers, it's well worth picking up.