Have you ever received an electric shock from the mere act of picking up a book? I have. It happened with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy, and now again with THE SNOWMAN, Jo Nesbø's latest novel released in the United States. It's supercharged from beginning to end.
THE SNOWMAN is part of the Harry Hole series, which is being published in the U.S. maddeningly out of order and incomplete to boot. Still, whether you are familiar with Hole or not, you will be mesmerized by this novel. Hole is an Oslo police investigator with a host of issues that make him by turns insufferable to work with and indispensable to an investigation. Possessed with an encyclopedic range of knowledge --- like a Swiss army knife, most of it useless until you need it --- and an uncanny intelligence, Hole is anything but a team player: abrupt, lacking tact, driven. If he is a player on any team, it is one that romps through his head, cackling and screaming and pulling him down. And in THE SNOWMAN, Hole is faced with and taunted by an adversary who threatens to suck him in and pull him down into madness.
This is a beautifully rendered work that defies a quick and easy summary, simply because to reveal one thread of the plot can lead all too easily to the revelation of another, and from there yet another, until the whole of it is divulged. So I'll try not to give away too much while attempting to reel you in. The majority of the book takes place in Oslo in November --- one would be hard-pressed to imagine a bleaker place and time of year, at least as described by Nesbø --- and is kicked off by the disappearance of a wife and mother from her home in the dead of night during the season's first snowfall. The only trace left of her is a scarf wrapped around the neck of a newly completed snowman in her yard.
Hole is brought into the case, one for which it appears he has received prior notice. Some weeks before the woman went missing, Hole received an anonymous letter that vaguely alluded to this occurrence in advance. The disappearance is followed by a particularly gruesome murder that appears to be related. As Hole delves more deeply into the investigation, relentlessly he begins to suspect that the current cases he's investigating are tied to a series of unsolved incidents going back several years, where women throughout Norway have vanished, without a trace, all of them during the winter season's first snowfall.
Hole does not lack for suspects. And let me tell you, as interesting a dark hero as he may be, the villains here, even the innocent ones, are as unforgettable as any you will encounter in literature this year. There is one about whom I could go on forever. Read the book and figure out which one. And see if you can determine who the Snowman really is. Nesbø drops clues, actually playing fair. You can solve the murders. You really can. I had the fiend's identity guessed early on, but by the time I was halfway through, I was sure I was wrong. Along the way you will learn about genetics and rare diseases, and how swinging and depressing a place Norway really is; by the end, you will feel wrung out. I suggest that after finishing the book, you take a day or two and not read anything else, just to cleanse your mental palate. Nothing else will seem quite as good.
So how good is THE SNOWMAN? It is so good that you will immediately obtain all of Nesbø's other adult works (he writes children's stories as well) and read them in one long sitting. Unfortunately, not all of his books, whether in the Hole series or otherwise, have been translated. Which brings me to an important word or 10: Kudos to Don Bartlett for a fabulous translation of the novel. Translators of foreign work are often ignored or, at best, given short shrift. That won't happen here. I am in awe of individuals who can translate literary works from any particular language you can name into English (I can't even translate my own handwriting), and Bartlett does a masterful job of capturing not only the letter but the spirit of Nesbø's work. However much he was paid for this was not enough; whatever praise he might gather is less than he deserves.
As for Jo Nesbø, he will need to brush the snow off the mantle to make room for the trophies he will be acquiring.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 16, 2011