COCKROACHES by JO NESBO a review

COCKROACHES
AUTHOR: JO NESBO
HARVILL SECKER 374 pages €15.99

Another Jo Nesbo, though not a new novel. As with many other Scandinavian crime writers recently popular in English, this is an earlier work. First published in 1998, and now available in translation, Cockroaches is the second in Jo Nesbo’s popular Harry Hole series, all ten of which are now available in English.

For those who haven’t encountered him, Nesbo is known for his gritty thrillers featuring his take on the stereotype of the dyspeptic alcoholic and quirky detective. His strength is in exposing the seamy side of life in Norway, whether present day Nazi sympathisers extolling racist ideology – some of the dialogue in Redbreast (2006) could have been lifted from the pronouncements of Anders Breivik – or the heroin plague on the streets of Oslo outlined in Phantom (2012). He is by now arguably the most popular Scandinavian crime writer, with hero Harry Hole rivalling Henning Mankell’s Wallender.

Nesbo’s books tend to be unsettling. Cockroaches is no exception. The setting is Thailand, where the Norwegian ambassador – and friend of the Prime Minister – has been found murdered in a seedy motel. Harry, fresh from his success in Australia ( The Bat, which launched the series) is grappling with his alcoholism when he is handpicked to investigate and to minimise the scandal.

Harry arrives in Bangkok and quickly discovers the situation is more complex than it had appeared. He soon realises that he was sent in the expectation that his liking for drink would mean the investigation would not get very far. Some of the local Norwegian expat community, from the Ambassador and his family on down, have secrets and few are willing to talk. There is clearly a cover –up, but to what end, and who to talk to, who to trust? Harry refuses to give up and slowly, after a number of hair raising experiences, he unravels the mystery.

Nesbo picked on Bangkok as an exotic location with which most readers would not be familiar and where literally anything can happen. The cockroaches of the title are symbolic of the different issues not immediately apparent which Harry encounters – where there is one cockroach you can expect to find a hundred. This against the background of a city notorious for its sex industry, catering for every taste and a lodestone for foreign paedophiles. There is the startling assertion that the Norwegian police abandoned an attempt to set up a database on Norwegian paedophiles in Thailand because it lacked the resources to keep up with the numbers!

Nesbo spent several months in Bangkok, where he was well received by the local Norwegian community, who introduced him to the highs, and some of the lows, of the Thailand scene. The result is another excellent thriller, the most popular among his earlier novels and one which casts a cold eye on the reality of expatriate life of some Europeans in Asia.

December 8 2013

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