As everybody knows, I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, so of course when the newest book in the series, Knife, was released last week I dropped everything else I was reading to devote myself to it. Having finished it, the big question in my mind is, why does Jo Nesbo hate his creation so much?
I get why a writer would get sick of a popular character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s frustration with Sherlock Holmes led him to kill the detective off in “The Final Problem,” though he did have to bring him back again in “The Adventure of the Empty House.” It seems to me that it would be easy enough to stop writing about a character if you’re tired of him or her. You don’t actually have to kill him (or ruin him; I’m looking at you, Jeff Lindsay, and what you did to Dexter in that series). But maybe it seems to the author that only the most drastic methods will free them from this particular character, and I understand that.
What Nesbo does to Harry Hole, however, is of a different caliber. Just killing him off would be one thing (he seemed to do that at the end of one book, Phantom, in a particularly shattering way), but Nesbo seems to delight in torturing his protagonist. By the start of this book, Harry has a terrific scar across part of his face, a metal replacement for one of his fingers, and those are just the physical marks of all the horrible things that have happened to him over the years; the psychological tortures have also taken a major toll.
And even so, Harry starts out this book in what looks like the bottom of the pit: separated from Rakel without hope of reconciliation, drunk to the point of blacking out and forgetting where he’s been or what he’s done during those blackouts, getting thrown out of the bar he used to own. We don’t know what happened (yet) to get Rakel to the point of ending things with him altogether, but we can see from Harry’s state that it must have been something dreadful.
And, believe it or not, that’s just the beginning and turns out NOT to be the deepest depths Harry is going to sink to. Things actually get worse from there. Harry becomes a suspect in a murder investigation and is prohibited from investigating it because of his proximity to the victim, which makes it more difficult for him to try to clear his name and find out who’s the actual perpetrator. Naturally, being officially forbidden from having anything to do with the investigation doesn’t prevent him from digging, though what he finds out just makes things darker and darker.
Nesbo hasn’t lost his fiendish touch when it comes to plotting. I can pretty much guarantee you will never figure out who was the real killer until the final revelation, not because he cheats by holding things back from you (he shows you everything you need to know, though he’s careful not to make any of it obvious), but because there are so many characters who could be the killer, and every time Harry thinks, and you think, he’s found the guilty party, Nesbo pulls the rug out from under you and makes it clear this person couldn’t be the one. Reading this book is like riding a roller coaster, but one of the modern ones with the hairpin curves you take at 90 miles an hour so you hang on for dear life the whole time, and you’re not even sure, till you get out of there alive, whether you were enjoying yourself or not.
There comes a point in every Jo Nesbo book I’ve read so far where the plot becomes so propulsive I can’t put the book down because I MUST find out how it resolves. This one is no exception: two or three plots came together in the last fifty pages in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. It was completely satisfying, the kind of ending that wraps everything up and leaves you feeling things came out the way they should.
Two caveats: If you haven’t read any of the books in the series before, this is NOT the book to start with. You can either begin with The Redbreast, which was the first one translated into English (and where I started the series), or with the first book written, The Bat, which was only translated after the other books became bestsellers in English. You’re not going to understand anything that’s going on without meeting and getting to know these characters through the earlier books.
Second warning: while there isn’t as much stomach-turning violence in this book as there has been in others in the series, Nesbo writes very dark stuff, and if you don’t like violence or gore, keep away from Harry Hole. Maybe keep away from Jo Nesbo altogether (Macbeth was similarly violent and gory).
If, however, you’re like me in that you’ve been following Harry through the many horrible crimes he’s solved over the years, and you have a strong stomach, I can heartily recommend Knife. Run, don’t walk, to the library to get your copy (or at least put it on hold), and then fasten your seat belt, because it’s one wild ride.