Why do I love Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels so much? Why, when I first learned that his latest book in the series, The Thirst, was coming out in May, did I jump up and down and squee with delight, putting it on hold so fast your head would spin?
Part of the reason is that I have read every other book in the series, starting with the first one translated into English, The Redbreast (I read the first two books written in the series when they were translated, six years after their original publication in Norwegian), and continuing breathlessly through Police in 2013. I’ve been waiting four years for this latest book, when all the previous books in the series came out annually.
But that’s not really an answer, is it? Something made me fall for the series so that I leaped at each new installment, even knowing (as I certainly did after a couple of the books) that they would be incredibly dark and creepy (which they are) and increasingly violent (reaching a near climax in terms of graphic brutality in The Leopard, which I would not recommend for anyone with delicate sensibilities or a weak stomach).
It’s the writing, certainly: Jo Nesbo knows how to tell a story, how to set a plot in motion, how to surprise a reader (and even though there are certain tricks he uses frequently over the course of the series, I still fall for them every time, because he handles them so well), how to ratchet up suspense. There is a point in every one of his books that I’ve read, usually at the ¾ or ⅚ point, where the plot is racing headlong to the climax and I am unable to put the book down until I finish it.
He’s also excellent at creating memorable characters, good and bad (and he’s used that skill more than once to make me care about a character he casually kills off a few chapters, or a couple of books, later). While (now former) Inspector Harry Hole is the central character of the series (and what a character he is!), there are plenty of returning characters who just gain more depth and detail over time, complex and flawed, starting with Rakel, the love of Harry’s life, Oleg, her son, and continuing with characters like Harry’s friend, Stelle Aune; a fellow police officer, Bjorn Holm; his former supervisor, Gunnar Hagen, and others.
Harry isn’t just the classic noir detective, always at odds with his superiors, a drinker and smoker, though he is all of those things. He’s complicated, battling his alcoholism even as sometimes (as in The Thirst) he falls off the wagon spectacularly. His past is full of losses and deaths, and his specialty of serial killers has given him insight into the worst people can do to each other. He’s brilliant but makes bad mistakes often enough to make him human, and one of the things I admire about him as a character is his ability to keep going after he’s made a serious mistake in an investigation, as well as his ability to put his life and safety on the line when it really counts (usually in the final stages of the pursuit of a killer). Harry has been damaged, over the course of the series, physically and emotionally, and I like that in a main character, too: the acknowledgment that when horrible things happen, you don’t just bounce back without a scratch; you carry scars of one sort or another.
So if you’re interested in a great, engrossing series of Norwegian crime novels, very dark but fascinating, with a cast of unforgettable characters and twisting plots that keep you turning the pages compulsively, check out Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels. You can start with The Redbreast, which was the first one translated into English, or you can start with the first book in the series, The Bat, but I would definitely recommend reading the books in order, to revel in the development of the characters, the vividness of the world of Oslo and environs in which the books take place, and the thrills of the detection of crime and the chase.