Imagine the thrill of super giant slalom. The rush, adrenalin pumping, mind peeled back to instinct. Now, imagine the thrill of slaloming downhill blindfolded, skis on fire, every twist and turn taking you into unknown territory, all the gates lined with razor blades, an avalanche chasing you, and at the bottom there’s a lake full of burning lava, a bottomless ravine, or a brick wall packed with high explosives – take your pick. Harry Hole is back for the eighth time in Jo Nesbø’s new novel The Leopard and he’s still smoking – cigarettes and opium, brimstone and fire.
The action starts in Hong Kong where Harry – fleeing the memories and after effects of The Snowman case – has acquired an opium habit and a broken jaw; he has also lost his passport and will to live. Can he be persuaded to trade the seedy sauna of Hong Kong for the unseasonable warmth of Oslo? Will he, like the chaffinch later in the novel, return home to what he thinks is a warm welcome only to die frozen in the Norwegian wilderness (geographical, personal, and career-wise). Harry has no reason to leave, caught up as he is in a new addiction, and Rakel and Oleg lost to him after their traumatic time at the hands of the Snowman. Can a beautiful police officer tempt him home – after all, his father is dying of cancer, and the Crime Squad is in danger of being replaced by the FBI-style Kripos. Oh, and there happens to be a new serial killer on the loose.
With the help of Kaja Solness and a little ball of opium smuggled unbeknownst to her in her cigarette packet, Harry’s home to face a scree of murders, the victims – all strangers – having spent one night together in a Tourist Association cabin in the mountains. What happened there for someone to turn into a serial killer? What prompted him/her to start picking them off one by one in increasingly violent ways? Even though Harry has to battle conflicting evidence, nightmares, opium addiction, bureaucracy, doubt, regret, and the lure of Jim Beam, the maverick detective hasn’t lost any of his investigative and intuitive powers. Betrayed by his fellow officers, trapped under tons of snow, caught in a chemical explosion, and coming face to face with his previous nemesis the Snowman, Harry has those epiphanies of deduction, those moments of reasoning awareness that makes him – no matter how far he has fallen – the man to solve the case. In many crime novels, the main protagonist is so dominant that the supporting cast act as ciphers, but Nesbø has a knack of determining the characteristics of police officers, suspects, lawyers with a few observational insights that make the ancillaries believable, full of shade and light.
The novel takes us from Hong Kong to Oslo with a detour to the Rwandan capital Kigali and on to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Africa, Harry investigates a weapon used in two of the killings – a rather nasty piece of torture apparatus known as Leopold’s apple – named after that well-known philanthropist King Leopold II of Belgium – consisting of a metal ball placed in the mouth of the victim, a wire trailing that, when pulled, releases 24 metal spikes. Harry returns from the Congo knowing there are people out there – murderers, torturers, rapists – who exist in society with their own personal heart of darkness. Towards the end of the novel, he returns there to face the tipping point of violence, the knowledge that we are all capable of extreme behaviour, that we all have memories (suppressed or otherwise) of humiliation and rejection that could – given the provocation – turn us into killers. This is also true of society – USA after 9/11, Rwanda, the DR Congo, the Nazi occupation of Norway. One’s morality shifts when confronted with pain. One’s societal behaviour changes when faced with the possibility of revenge.
Nesbø’s Harry Hole books are contemporary revenge tragedies concerned with violence, corruption, power, madness, addiction, and nationality. They are peopled with incestuous families, bullies, rapists, murderers and avengers. Forget the fact that Norway has only one recognized serial killer (a male nurse called Arnfinn Nesset who poisoned 22 patients), Norway in Nesbø’s novels is a state of mind – the ice-cold wilderness, the merciless waste, the dark crevasse-like cortical folds of a serial killer’s brain – anywhere could be (and is) the Congo. If you are in any way squeamish, the later scenes in Goma are horrific yet strangely educational – now I know what to do if I ever find myself in a situation where I need to dislocate a part of my body.
The Leopard sets up a series of conflicts between police agencies, police and suspects, society and the individual, sons and fathers, lovers and ex-lovers, bullies and the bullied, Western society and the Third World, personal ambition and economic reality. It doesn’t pretend to have answers to any of these but – like a good detective – asks question after question, and picks at the scab-like clues to reveal the raw wounds beneath. One annoyance – the italicized sections from the killer are unnecessary, they add little to the already convoluted (in a good way) plot, they read very much like add-ons at the bequest of an editor, and they detract from the rush of the novel – they are narrative speed bumps, editorial sleeping policemen.
Any Cop?: Harry Hole’s your worst nightmare if you happen to be a serial killer but he’s also his own worst nightmare when it comes to Jim Beam, cigarettes, and taking a beating. If I were Nesbø I would be pissed off with the publisher’s permanent “sticker” embedded in the cover that reads, “The Next Stieg Larsson” – like his hero Harry Hole, Jo Nesbø’s his own man. Good writing should be its own marketing strategy. One of the best crime series out there.