Jo Nesbø's The Snowman: Why are Nesbø's mysteries so addictive?

Reading between the lines.
May 11 2011 7:18 AM

Norwegian Mood

What makes Jo Nesbø's books so addictive.

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All this makes him nearly impossible for his superiors to work with, and as a result they often undermine him—sometimes understandably, sometimes with devious motives of their own. Like all great cop plots, the Harry Hole series depends on an expectation that the enemy will as likely come from within, and above, as he will from the world outside. This too, I suppose, is connected to that larger, broader perspective: the sense that the same institutional structures that shape the criminal world also shape (and mar) the world of the police.

Capitalizing, no doubt, on the enormous success of Stieg Larsson, Knopf is now issuing The Snowman, which is actually the seventh book in the Harry Hole series. Since it is crucial to read the series in order (because each plot refers to and in some cases hinges on the one before it, and Harry's own life goes through transformations you will need to be a party to in order to understand the books fully), American readers will have some pleasurable background reading to do before they launch into this latest volume. The first two volumes, alas, have not yet been translated into English, so you will just have to live with those obscure references to whatever Harry did wrong when he was working on a case in South Africa.

The earliest book available to us Anglophones is The Redbreast; start there, and then move on to Nemesis and The Devil's Star. These three form a trilogy in which the immediate case at hand (a cluster of contemporary murders that hark back to World War II, a string of increasingly violent bank robberies, and a series of symbolically similar but seemingly unrelated killings of women) gets resolved by the end of each book, but a deeper, darker case continues through all three. In solving each plot, Harry benefits from the special skills of his sidekicks—a woman named Ellen who can mentally draw every necessary connection between three random clues, and another woman named Beate who can recognize every face she's every glimpsed—but these characters, despite their outlandish abilities, never seem hokey in any way, as the more bizarre achievements of Larsson's Lizbeth Salander sometimes do. Character is important and largely credible in the Nesbø books, and that is part of what makes them consistently appealing. But it is their plots—brilliant conceived, carefully worked out, and complicatedly satisfying—that finally make them un-put-downable.

After The Devil's Star comes The Redeemer, which intertwines a plot involving the Norwegian Salvation Army with a brief history of Balkan unrest. (A warning: You may have some trouble acquiring all these earlier books in America at this point; I had to alternate between remaindered hardcovers, imported British paperbacks, and Kindle editions in order to read the whole set.) And then at last we reach The Snowman, which is probably the most terrifying and certainly the most addictive book in the whole series. The novel's storyline involves a series of gruesome murders, each heralded by the figure of a snowman, in which the victims are all mothers of young children; even to hint at what kinds of mothers they are would be to give away too much of the plot. Harry eventually exposes the serial killer with the help, but also sometimes the hindrance, of a new female sidekick, a glamorous, mysterious police officer named Katrin Bratt—and meanwhile his own relationship with his ex-lover Rakel and her son Oleg unravels on the side. Nesbø's talent for complex, propulsive plotting reaches its pinnacle in this volume: I actually had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to finish reading it, because thinking about its plot strands made me hopelessly insomniac.

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And yet The Snowman is also the volume in which the rot begins to set in. The baroque quality of its Grand Guignol ending signals—to me, at least—that Jo Nesbø is finally getting tired of Harry Hole. I would guess he has begun to find Harry more of a burden than a pleasure, and is starting to wish he could get rid of this financially rewarding, deeply disturbing alter-ego with whom he has somehow saddled himself.

It is the same process all great mystery writers go through—Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Mankell with Kurt Wallander. The despairing author realizes he has invented a character who has grown larger than himself, an uncontrollable figure who clambers across the supine authorial body as he makes his way into the arms of the demanding public. And the writerly impulse at this point is always the same: to destroy the detective in order to make his return impossible. Jo Nesbø has not yet reached this point, but he is getting there. In the book that comes after The Snowman, which is called The Leopard (due out from Knopf in 2013), he tries to kill off Harry three times, and the increasingly ludicrous violence makes the plot seem like something made for TV. If I can recognize the symptoms of decline, then so must Jo Nesbø. It is only a matter of time before the Harry Hole series will come to a grinding halt. So start reading now, before it's too late.

Wendy Lesser, the editor of the Threepenny Review, is the author of nine books, most recently Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets.