Book review – Police: Harry’s alive and kicking

2013-09-22 14:00

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Reports that Jo Nesbo killed off his finest creation were greatly exaggerated, writes Natasha Joseph

There’s a wonderful and comforting formula to detective novels: there’s a grizzled, often drunk, relationship-impaired genius at the centre of it all.

He – or, increasingly, she – is a lone wolf. A guru. A sort of Rain Man of detectives who can’t remember simple things like a partner’s birthday or filing tax returns, but is able to uncover the truth and bag the killer – often at great personal cost.

Not all detectives are reprobates. They often have kind, law-abiding and slightly dull sidekicks who act as their moral compasses and brew endless cups of coffee to unsnarl even the nastiest hangover.

But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford is a lovely chap whose biggest battle is not with the demons of alcoholism or failed marriages, but with his waistline.

Mostly, though, literary detectives are not the best of people. Even the best ones leave you absolutely aghast at yourself because you’re cheering them on when you should be condemning their appalling behaviour.

Sometimes the formula fails miserably and you throw the book across the room before you’re even halfway.

But then there’s Jo Nesbo and his creation, Harry Hole.

Hole is a raging alcoholic – a man out of control. He can work with very few people, he hates bosses and they hate him back.

He’s also absolutely awesome.

In Nesbo’s last book, Phantom, Hole died.

Crime fiction buffs worldwide threw their hands up and howled – sure, Hole always seemed destined for an early grave, but Nesbo’s murder of his beautifully drawn, utterly compelling detective was still a shock to the system.

But it turns out Hole’s not dead. Instead, in Police, he’s a changed man – and he doesn’t feature until well into the novel. By then, his former colleagues are elbow deep in a series of gruesome murders of police officers killed at the scenes of old, unsolved crimes.

His former colleagues are some of Norway’s finest: Beatte Lonn, the head of forensics who never forgets a face; Bjorn Holm, who’s been with Harry since the start and whose love of American country music continues to baffle his colleagues; and Katrine Bratt, who is mentally ill and still a better police officer than most of the force combined. But they’re not Hole, and they need his help.

Those who have followed the Hole series from the beginning (The Bat, which was only released in English quite recently) will be quite astonished by the Harry Hole who appears in this novel.

He’s not only sober, he’s back with the love of his life Rakel and is now a lecturer at Norway’s police college. He is not on active duty, and he doesn’t want to be. End of story.

Or not.

There really hasn’t been a misstep in Nesbo’s 10-book series. That’s quite a claim to make, right? But it’s true: the author skilfully combines tragedy with a wonderfully dark sense of humour, and his characters are richly drawn.

The detail is superb and thoughtful, like Lonn’s earring, made out of one of her slain father’s uniform buttons; or Holm’s personalised coffee mug, which declares him to be country superstar Hank Williams.

A warning: while it’s an easy read in the sense of being the sort of 500 pages you can devour in hours flat, Police is also one of Nesbo’s darkest, creepiest novels yet. There’s a chilling rape narrative that may unsettle many, and the author is not afraid to take his characters to the sunless lands in search of identity, meaning and redemption.

He is also a little like scriptwriter and director Joss Whedon, who has a reputation for creating characters you fall helplessly in love with – and then dispatching them mercilessly.

You’ll cry at least once during Police because Nesbo could care less about your loyalties and nobody is safe.

If you’re new to Nesbo, punish your credit card a little and buy the entire series. Then set aside a week or 10 days, lock yourself in your favourite reading room and prepare to be blown away.

Police by Jo Nesbo

Harvill Secker; 528 pages

R327 at

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