Rarely does a mystery novel succeed on so many levels, as the intricate plotting explores psychological and theological dimensions that go deeper than standard notions of good and evil.
As a literary stylist as well as a master of mystery, Nesbø (Phantom, 2012, etc.) has established himself as the king of Scandinavian crime fiction, a genre that became an international sensation in the wake of the posthumous success of Stieg Larrson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and its sequels and film adaptations). Yet, tracing the publishing trail of Nesbø and his series featuring the intuitive alcoholic Harry Hole requires some detective work of its own. This is actually the novel that precedes The Snowman (2011), the work that launched Nesbø internationally as a best-selling author, and the sixth Harry Hole novel overall (the first two have yet to be published in the United States). It may also be the best, or at least the richest, in its evocation of a sinister plot involving the Salvation Army during the Oslo Christmas season. The rape of one Salvation Army teen by another sows the seeds for all the complications that follow, yet it takes most of the novel for the reader to be certain of the identities of the rapist and victim, as the very notion of identity defies easy resolution throughout. With its themes of forgiveness and redemption, and the difference between the two, the novel presents every one of its characters as a flawed human being, unable to separate into categories of good guys and bad guys. In fact, the title character is a shadowy contract murderer, and redemption also serves as a euphemism for a junkie’s fix. As one initially peripheral character who proves crucial tells Hole, “You’ve discovered that guilt is not as black-and-white as you thought when you decided to become a policeman and redeem humankind from evil. As a rule there’s little evil but a lot of human frailty. Many sad stories you can recognize in yourself.” Ultimately, a story with a lot of pieces to its puzzle hurtles toward a climax that is not merely sad, but tragic.
Perhaps not the best novel for a Nesbø initiate, but those with an affinity for the darkest and most literary crime fiction will want to get here as soon as they can.