PHANTOM by JO NESBO : review

PHANTOM

Harry Hole is back, a detective in the classic hard boiled mode, world weary, flawed,  but with a passion for justice. Harry is also Norwegian, and his creator, Jo Nesbo, stakes a claim to being the  best crime writer to emerge from Scandinavia. The comparisons are with Henning Mankel and Wallender rather than Stieg Larsson. The only tattoos in evidence in this, the ninth in the Harry Hole series, are those on the Russian criminals Harry encounters.

Jo Nesbo is himself an interesting character. A promising footballer, he played with the current Norwegian champions Molde before  his dreams of playing for Spurs were shattered  together  with his cruciate ligaments. After graduation, he became a stockbroker and financial analyst and along the way founded a successful rock band, Di Derre. Burn out, and a trip to Australia prompted a lifestyle change and the first Harry Hole novel appeared in 1997 (the O is pronounced like the U in Una). His reputation has grown with each book.  The last, The Leopard, was a best seller here and  in the UK and another (The Snowman) is being made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese.

In Phantom , Harry has returned to Oslo after three years in Hong Kong. His alcoholism has been tamed and he is still the formidable dogged investigator of old. No longer a policeman, he is back to investigate a case already closed, that of a junkie killed by another. He reignites his old relationship with the woman of his life and her son, for whom he was the surrogate father. He plunges into the other Oslo, an underworld of drugs and crime, a marked contrast to the city’s prosperous public face.  On the way we get  insights into how the modern drug  supply network operates including a classic account of smuggling by air.

There is a fresh version of heroin on the street – violin – and the addicts are queuing  up for their  fix. It is synthetic, highly potent, and in short supply, controlled by a mysterious new figure on the local scene – “the Man from Dubai.” His dealers wear trademark Arsenal shirts, his enforcers are Russian, his philosophy is simple. You mess with him – you die.  Meanwhile the authorities  are preening themselves over an apparent clean-up of Oslo, with a decline in  drug deaths and a rise in successful police busts of drug pushers. Throw in sex, hints of police and official corruption and you have all the ingredients for a page turner.

As the book progresses, Harry’s demons resurface. His Achilles heel remains drink and “will he won’t he” is a subtext for much of the book, marked also by his encounters with a strange  priest­- like figure, complete with clerical collar, who shares the same flop house hotel Harry uses as a base. But, as the body count mounts and Harry gets close to the truth and to the criminal mastermind there are unpalatable realities to be confronted and faced down. Another winner for Nesbo.

March 2012

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