I have been reading mystery fiction for over five decades. I started with Dick Tracy comic books, moved on to Helen Fuller Orton’s children’s mysteries and the Hardy Boys, and never stopped. There is a comfort in the familiarity of the genre, so I really don’t mind being able to guess how things work out if the journey to the end is well presented. Therefore, I sit up and take notice when I encounter an author who doesn’t break the rules but instead creates new ones. There are a few writers doing that, including Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Arnaldur Indriðason and Jo Nesbø. Which is why I have to ask in the strongest possible terms that you read THE DEVIL’S STAR right now: in plotting, characterization, and yes, mystery, you can feel new ground being broken as you move through this incredible work.
Nesbø is much better known overseas, though this is slowly but surely being remedied by the better-late-than-never publication of his novels in the United States. THE DEVIL’S STAR is the third to be released here, after THE REDBREAST and NEMESIS. (Two more books, THE REDEEMER and THE SNOWMAN, have been translated into English but are not available in U.S. stores yet.) As with its predecessors, THE DEVIL’S STAR features Harry Hole, an Oslo homicide detective who doesn’t have skeletons in his closet so much as entire graveyards full of them. If so inclined to do so, one could write a thesis about him. A brilliant police investigator, Hole is also a two-fisted alcoholic whose disorder constantly threatens to devour every aspect of his life, from professional to personal to every point in between.
And indeed, at the commencement of THE DEVIL’S STAR, he is being devoured. This is heavy stuff. Nesbø’s prose is like a drug, but his subject matter drags you to the abyss and puts you eye-to-eye with Hole’s monster. Let me put it this way. I don’t mean to bore you with my issues, but I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for almost 19 years. Reading about Hole was so unsettling for me that at times I thought I would either have to stop reading or start drinking again. There’s only one other author --- James Lee Burke --- who can write as powerfully on the subject. But THE DEVIL’S STAR is not just a character study. Hole has bit the moose, as they say, just once too often, and, as the book revs up, Crime Squad Chief Inspector Bjarne Moller is giving him the gate.
Hole’s firing is a foregone conclusion; the fact that he is a brilliant inspector can no longer counterbalance the reality that his chaotic personal life is affecting his work. When the investigation of a solitary murder turns into a hunt for a serial killer, however, Moller assigns Hole to spend his remaining time on the job looking into it. He works with Tom Waaler, a man who he neither likes nor trusts. Indeed, Hole suspects Waaler of having previously murdered Hole’s partner in order to cover up Waaler’s own illegal, off-the-books activities. Through a combination of dogged investigation, logic and solid intuition, Hole traces the method to the murderer’s madness and, almost halfway through the novel, seems to have solved the case with a suspect in custody.
The story, though, is only the beginning. Waaler, aware that Hole is being separated from the department, has approached him about participating in other activities, while hinting that his failure to do so may place Rakel, Hole’s sometime love and only chance at redemption, in jeopardy. Things aren’t anywhere near done at the halfway point. And the conclusion? Let’s just say that it is even more chilling than the beginning.
Have you ever heard of breaking the fourth wall when it comes to film or television? Well, Nesbø breaks the third binding, if you will, with THE DEVIL’S STAR. I had screamed “No!” at more than one character multiple times by the end of the book. That’s my idea of great writing.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 29, 2010