It's a measure of Jo Nesbo's success that the stickers that used to adorn his covers proclaiming him "the next Stieg Larsson" have been replaced more recently with ones simply declaring: "The new Harry Hole thriller". The Norwegian writer plays second fiddle to no one these days, having gone from up-and-coming to well and truly arrived. The cover of his latest offering, Phantom, also boasts of "over 11 million books sold worldwide", although a scoot to his website reveals that this figure is already well out of date. In fact, Nesbo has shifted 14 million books, a number only set to increase with all of the movie adaptations in the pipeline – not least a film of the earlier Harry Hole novel The Snowman that Martin Scorsese is set to direct.
Phantom is Nesbo's 16th book in as many years, and the ninth to feature the damaged cop Harry Hole. So what is it about Nesbo and his most famous creation that have triggered such widespread appeal? Well for one thing, Nesbo can certainly do plot. The second half of Phantom especially is expertly plotted and structured, with all the requisite twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The latter half of the book is also relentlessly paced, reading at times like a Scandinavian police version of the Jason Bourne series, and spilling over with breakneck action and endless violent confrontations.
But for all that Phantom is a compulsive page-turner, it's also at times woefully overwritten (as well as just plain badly written), making one wish for an editor with a strong enough will to have taken it in hand and shaved around 100 pages from its 450-page girth.
One obvious cut would be the opening, which is narrated by a rat. Yes, a rat, in the process of discovering a nearly dead body in a junkie den. It's only a page and a half long, but still. The rat resurfaces at the beginning of each of the novel's five sections, and frankly it's ridiculous.
Phantom gets underway properly with the arrival of Harry Hole in Oslo, fresh off the plane from Hong Kong where he has spent the past three years sobering up and dealing with his demons. He's carrying plenty of emotional and physical scars, notably a long slash across his face and a prosthetic middle finger on one hand. He is, of course, still hugely attractive to all the female characters in the book. By the end of the book, he's acquired even more scars, both real and mental, and yet he's still beating away the ladies with a stick. Go figure.
Although no longer a police officer, Hole has returned home to investigate a murder that already appears solved, because he has a personal investment in it. The son of the love of his life has admitted to shooting and killing a fellow junkie, but Hole, who has been something of a surrogate father to the teenager in the past, doesn't believe he's telling the truth. And so Nesbo leads us into the murky backstreets of Oslo and a world of drug addiction and smuggling, gang warfare and corrupt officialdom – all of which social context is handled with real skill by the author.
"Violin" is a new synthetic drug, similar to heroin but far more potent, and while it plays havoc with Oslo's junkie population, its control and distribution are being masterminded by a mysterious Russian gangster known only as "Dubai"; a shadowy figure who lurks behind all the action of Phantom and presumably gives the book its title.
This backdrop is painted in a handful of different narratives, some of which work far better than others. Despite the clunkiness of the device, the backstory delivered by the murdered Gusto is well thought out and dovetails nicely both with Hole's own story and that of the corrupt police "burner" on the payroll of the drug gang. But, narrating rat aside, there are two storylines that don't engage early on, and then simply peter out: one about a knife-fighting Russian henchman and another about a drug-smuggling Norwegian airline pilot. It should also be pointed out that the villainous Dubai lives up to his ghostly reputation by being so thinly drawn as to be virtually see-through.
At times, too, the line-by-line prose can be awful. Adverbs and adjectives pile up and weigh sentences down, there is far too much of Harry's clichéd internal monologue, and Nesbo's dialogue has a tendency to do one of two things: either meander aimlessly or be chock-full of cringeworthy plot exposition.
But for all that, the plot keeps you reading. There is a relentless momentum to Phantom that is impossible to deny. That is not a skill to be sniffed at or underestimated, but reading Phantom, you just wish for the cleaner, tighter novel it could have been.