Thursday, 7 February 2013

Book Review: The Redbreast

Title: The Redbreast (book #3 in the Harry Hole series)
Author: Jo Nesbø, English translation by Don Bartlett
Year Published: 2000, translation 2006
Genre: Crime, Historical fiction, Thriller, Mystery

Detective Harry Hole is a recovering alcoholic, reassigned after a rather serious mishap involving the US Secret Service. In his new role, he is asked to investigate neo-Nazis, but what really piques his interest is the fact a high-powered rifle has been smuggled into Norway. Interwoven with Harry's story is a story of a WWII soldier who fought for the Nazis at the Eastern Front. As both tales unfold, bodies pile up and it becomes a case of identifying the killer.

The Redbreast is the third book in Jo Nesbø's popular Harry Hole series but one of the first to be translated into English. Thankfully, it works as a standalone, though some plot arcs aren't resolved by the end of the book. Many of the characters feel “lived-in”, a result, I imagine, of having appeared in previous books, and it's great – you get the sense that they were people before the events of the story. At the same time, there's enough description so that new readers won't feel like they're missing out. Previous events are mentioned only passingly; phrases like “what happened in Sydney and Bangkok” are thrown in but what they refer to aren't necessary to the understanding of the plot. No doubt readers of the previous books will get more out of it, but as a newbie I found The Redbreast to be very accessible on its own.

I don't usually read crime novels and I picked this one on the basis of its Norwegian setting. Fortunately, a sense of place did come through – and not in a down-your-throat sort of way – and this adds to the book's charm. If you're looking for a change from the usual American/British settings then you might want to give Nesbø's Oslo a go.

The writing is simple and the chapters brief. The author gets to the point – no purple prose here – and delivers a healthy dose of humour at the same time. Characters are drawn with a deft stroke, their description precise and at times compellingly vile. Despite its length the book is an easy, comfortable read. The narrative jumps between different characters and time lines and the tension builds slowly throughout. I read the book intermittently, but I reckon it's better suited to being read at once – I found myself having to flip back and forth to keep track of who everyone was. As an aside, the WWII plotline starts in the thick of it – being woefully ignorant of WWII I didn't know what was going on at first and who the Norwegians were fighting for. If you're as clueless as I am, then a quick browse on wiki before you read the book might be helpful (basically, Norway was occupied by the Germans and there were Norwegians who fought both for and against them – though of course this is an extreme simplification).

Now I don't mind it when things take time to get going (indeed I prefer it to the common need to dazzle from the get-go), but the “nothing's happening” feeling at the start of the book may put off some readers. The plot and Harry's investigation feel directionless at times, but then I know nothing of being a detective so maybe that's just how it is. I found myself swept along with the book's internal logic and didn't think too hard on whether certain things made sense – which was perhaps for the best. The bits about Harry's personal life were fine, but as regards the crime aspect, I would've liked a bit more of a driving force. It's only towards the end that the book becomes more of a whodunit.

Crime tropes are in plentiful supply: there are Nazis both regular and neo (which the Norwegian angle rendered less off-putting for me), a long-suffering good-hearted boss, a psychologist who advises Harry on criminal minds, races against time, and a myriad of characters and plots connected in ways that are too neat by half. It can get a bit cliched and contrived, but overall the book is still enjoyable.

The Redbreast is a fun and diverting read. It's easy to see why the Harry Hole series is popular. There's nothing especially original going on, but that doesn't really matter. The writing style, the characterisation and the interweaving of plots are the book's main strengths. For those who haven't read Scandi-crime yet the setting might also provide a refreshing change.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Reading order for the Harry Hole series (those marked with an asterisk are not yet available in English):
  • The Bat
  • The Cockroaches*
  • The Redbreast
  • Nemesis
  • The Devil's Star
  • The Redeemer
  • The Snowman
  • The Leopard
  • Phantom
  • Police* (upcoming)

No comments:

Post a Comment