‘Enough red herrings to make you sick of rollmops’ – The Snowman by Jo Nesbø

Harry Hole is having a hard time. Harry Hole is always having a hard time. He is trying to give up alcohol, trying not to sleep with his ex-wife, trying not to back chat his boss. Oh, and he has a problem with mould in his apartment and a serial killer on the loose whose signature is to build a snowman at the scene of the crime. Bit of a problem if you live in Jamaica, admittedly, but this is Oslo, Norway, where snow is as grey and as ubiquitous as Trafalgar Square pigeons. The fifth in the Harry Hole series after The Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil’s Star, and The Redeemer to be translated into English, The Snowman rips along with chills, thrills, and enough red herrings to make you sick of rollmops.

As I have written elsewhere on Bookmunch, the serial killer novel is so common that any attempt at one brings with it the attendant danger of slipping over into pastiche. All novelistic serial killers struggle with Hannibal’s shadow and Thomas Harris’s brilliantly executed and researched Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Harris went too far in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising; in my opinion, both books read like baroque travesties of his earlier works. Therefore, in the post-Hannibal thriller world, serial killers have to have a tag, a tic, a hook upon which to hang their psychosis, their signature. Where Hannibal had his fava beans and maroon eyes, Fred Vargas’s serial killer drew chalk circles, Patrick Bateman had his pocket squares and a thing about Huey Lewis and the News, so Jo Nesbø’s murderer builds snowmen and uses a vicious heated wire loop to kill his/her (I won’t spoil it) victims.

What works in this novel is Jo Nesbø’s writing; it is spare with magical flourishes, draws the reader into a tangled web of clues and misdirections, and has an underlying tension that drives the reader on in the hope that at some point we might be able to relax again. Thrillers sometimes fail because they want to be movies. The writer describes the action as if he has one eye on the movie screen and another on a Hollywood contract. This wall-eyed approach means that the novels are little more than movie scripts with superfluous adjectives and adverbs.

In some senses, Harry Hole is a cliché. Separated from his wife, struggling with alcohol, a depressive, an anti-authoritarian and a rebel, Harry could have been built out of bit parts of John Rebus, Dave Robicheaux, Lew Griffin, and Harry Bosch. However, Jo Nesbø’s characterisation brings Harry Hole to life, and makes the reader feel that, despite his problems, his cock-ups, and his weaknesses, Harry might just be the man for the job.

A mother goes missing in the night, a wife disappears into the woods, a police officer vanishes on a small island. They all have one thing in common, a snowman is found in the near vicinity. Jo Nesbø does for snowmen what Stephen King did for the Plymouth Fury and these usually innocent constructions of snow, ice, coal, carrots and twigs exert an eerie influence on the novel and on Harry, to such an extent that at one point the sight of one in his yard drives him into an uncontrollable rage. Harry thinks the killings are linked and a letter he received a few years ago could be the key. He has plenty of suspects – a disgraced policeman, a plastic surgeon, a university professor, a celebrity media tycoon, Harry’s colleague, Harry’s ex-wife’s partner. The Snowman, however, is elusive, ratcheting up the kill count as Harry’s suspicions change focus.

Like the best thrillers, The Snowman is not just a platform game in novel form, it is a psychological portrait of a man struggling with his own neuroses and a community confronted by its worst nightmares. It is an exploration of nationality and identity, and an analysis of what it is like to live with a hereditary disease that will inevitably kill you – in this case, Fahr’s syndrome. Like the best crime writers, Ken Bruen, James Ellroy, James Sallis, and Daniel Woodrell, Jo Nesbø documents a place and a period in time using contemporary music, movies, and consumer goods; but while Bruen’s characters listen to The Clash, Sallis’s to Sonny Boy Williamson, Rankin’s to the Rolling Stones, Harry Hole is in the moshpit with Slipknot.

Any Cop?: This is the fifth in the Harry Hole series translated into English by Don Bartlett. The translations are very good indeed but why did Harvill Secker start with 2000’s The Redbreast? Two other books in the Harry Hole series came before that –Flaggermusmannen (The Bat Man) in 1997 and Kakerlakkene (Cockroaches) in 1998. The first is set in King’s Cross, Sydney, Australia and the second in Thailand – could it be that the huge interest in Scandinavian crime fiction dictates that none of the settings can be sunny and warm?

Steve Finbow

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