Headhunters, By Jo Nesbo

Corrupt society, but in the best possible taste

Last winter I interviewed the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo for these pages.

It was an entertaining and, I thought, an informative, encounter. After reading Headhunters, the latest of his novels to be translated, I began to wonder. It is not a part of the author's celebrated Harry Hole series but a stand-alone thriller set in the precarious worlds of high finance and fine art. The result is a masterclass in obfuscation and psychological parrying.

Roger Brown is the predator in question. "I am a headhunter," he declares pompously. "I am king of the heap." Roger prowls the corridors and boardrooms of the Norwegian CEO circuit looking for the right Corneliani-clad peg for each fiscally lined hole. He's bullish yet insecure, obsessed with stature, and with an ego in inverse ratio to his height. Essentially, he's a chippy little blighter with secrets bigger than his shoe size.

To avoid giving his wife, Diana, a child, he underwrites a contemporary art gallery for her to manage. Its debts quickly mount so Roger uses his professional credentials to scope out what can be filched from his candidate's art collections. However, when a Nazi-looted Rubens appears in his sights, what appears to be a boon soon drops Roger into waters as murky and deadly as the city's fjord.

Roger is a well-crafted, morally dubious chancer who remains oddly likeable owing to a nifty line in bitter observations. "I am at a complete loss to understand what it is that makes grown people spend money on whoring artists' embarrassing lachrymose versions of their beloved offspring," he says, taking in a family portrait while stealing a Munch lithograph from a client's house. "Do they like to see their guests blush?" Nesbo, himself a professional economist, tallies the financial with the personal. Even parking his car, Roger has to give us a status update. "My Volvo slipped into a line of cars all in the same price bracket".

After recent events, no one can be in any doubt of Norway's dark side and Nesbo wisely juxtaposes Oslo's shiny veneer with its rotten elements. Equally, the parallels between artistic worth and corporate value are neatly levied. "The world is full of people who pay serious money for bad pictures by good artists. And mediocre heads on tall bodies." Nesbo has that rare talent for turning the tables on readers, confounding expectations and revealing only what is intended. Just like one of Roger's sharper executives. Or, I suspect, like an author in control of an interview.