Harvill Secker £16.99

Phantom, By Jo Nesbo

The detective hero of 'The Snowman' faces another insubstantial adversary

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of "over 11 million books sold worldwide", although a scoot to his website reveals that this figure is already well out of date.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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own