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Book review: Cockroaches, By Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett

 

Jo Nesbo gently but firmly clutched my arm. I was to talk to him at the Manchester Literature Festival, and our names had been announced; we were heading for the stage.

But just before we walked on, the creator of such phenomenally popular crime novels as The Snowman smiled at me and said: "Why don't you give me the big rock star build-up?" There is no arguing with Mr Nesbo, so I did just that: reminding a beaming audience how Nesbo's Harry Hole novels were selling one book every 23 seconds. My peroration ended with: "And here's the reigning king of Scandinavian crime fiction: Mr Jo Nesbo!' The hall erupted as if I'd just announced Justin Bieber to an audience of tweens.

But though I'd been bumped into this salesmanship by the writer himself, Nesbo has a modest persona – despite the fact that he has every reason to assume rock star hauteur (his own albums as a singer routinely topped Norwegian charts).

These days, it is, of course, his writing that has conquered the public imagination, from the gritty social commitment of The Redbreast (with its unsparing vision of his country's wartime past) to the blockbuster excitement of The Snowman and the recent Police. Nesbo forged something new from the cliché of the dyspeptic alcoholic copper, making Harry Hole the most successful Nordic crime export since Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander.

Cockroaches is, in fact, the second outing for the detective, making a belated appearance in translation in this country (courtesy of Don Bartlett) after the recent UK debut of the writer's first novel, The Bat. So how does Cockroaches, written in 1998, read in 2013?

Harry Hole arrives in Bangkok after the Norwegian ambassador (a close friend of the Prime Minister) is murdered in a down-market motel, but it seems that the dead man's family has secrets they wish to keep. Harry (whose job is to fend off scandal during the investigation) lays his hands on some incendiary CCTV footage. Needless to say, a can of worms soon splits open, and when another diplomat is knifed in an Asian brothel, Harry realises that keeping a lid on things will be a tough job.

The Bat channelled culture shock tactics with its fish-out-of-water Norwegian sleuth in Australia, and Cockroaches employs similar tactics with a far more rigorous attention to plotting than in the earlier book. The complex narrative and large dramatis personae are handled with steely authority, but what really makes the novel work is the fact that the picturesque seediness of Bangkok and Thailand turn out to be Harry Hole's natural element, with Nesbo plumping his hero down in a very non-Norwegian setting.

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