I read an article earlier this year that put forth the proposition that Jo Nesbo is “the next Stieg Larsson” or some such thing. I hate when people do that, though I do it myself too. It’s a convenient signpost that points the way to a “recommended if you like” sort of notation. I was reminded of it as I read THE LEOPARD, the latest installment in Nesbo’s series featuring Harry Hole, the troubled Norwegian homicide inspector. It is one of those books that makes one want to start tossing off terms like “compelling,” “startling” and “riveting” in the hopes that if enough superlatives are piled one atop another that the speaker or writer can communicate just how high this work stands above its peers.
"[THE LEOPARD] is one of those books that makes one want to start tossing off terms like 'compelling,' 'startling' and 'riveting' in the hopes that if enough superlatives are piled one atop another that the speaker or writer can communicate just how high this work stands above its peers."
The book’s MacGuffin, if you will, is a serial killer who is loose in Norway. As we learn within the first couple of pages or so, he is quite ingenious in his method of dispatch; you’ll never hear the admonition “don’t think of a white horse” without remembering what occurs. It doesn’t involve a white horse, either. This is a case for Harry Hole, of course, but Harry is nowhere to be found, having left his job and Norway (in that order) following the events and the aftermath of THE SNOWMAN. Where Harry has been and how he is found (and persuaded to return) is worth the price of admission to THE LEOPARD all by itself; for our purposes, it is enough that he comes back, though he wants no part of his job or this investigation.
Still, Harry is drawn to it. He has little to go with by way of evidence, and there is seemingly no connection that links the victims. It suddenly becomes very vital for Harry, on a personal level, to catch the fiend. And here we come to the common thread of these books, which is what occurs when one badly damaged human being is trying to catch and stop another from doing terrible things.
I live about an hour away from a vacation destination that proclaims itself to be “an island with a drinking problem.” It seems that Scandinavia is a geopolitical entity with a seasonal affective disorder problem, if one is to look at the dour and damaged state of its literary protagonists. And of these, Harry Hole has either shouldered his way to the front or remained in place while each of his fictional peers takes a step back. Nesbo puts me in the mind of other great authors, such as Ken Bruen and Garth Innis, not so much in style but in attitude. To be in a Nesbo book in any capacity is to be predestined to experience a hard and nasty time. This is especially true of the victims here, who are dispatched with a gruesome cunning that will remain in the crevices of your brain until your dying day. But it is even truer of the protagonist.
Things, however, are not unrelentingly grim. Nesbo shoots the narrative through with grand dollops of black humor, a practice that extends even to the chapter titles. At times, it appears that Harry knows where things are headed even before the killer does. Nonetheless, he seems barely tethered to his life throughout the novel, though he manages to attain one accomplishment by book’s end. Or is he trading one shortcoming for another? We’ll have to wait for the next installment to be sure.
Nesbo as the next Larsson? I don’t think that such a comparison is fair to either author. Certainly Larsson opened the door to worldwide attention to Nordic noir; if he had not, I have to believe that Nesbo would have eventually opened it himself. Check that. On the strength of THE LEOPARD, I assume he would have blasted the door off its hinges.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 15, 2011