Harvill Secker, £16.99, 464pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Phantom, By Jo Nesbo, trans. Don Bartlett
Friday 16 March 2012
At the New Zealand International Arts Festival, Jo Nesbo was asked how he felt about being called "the new Stieg Larsson". With characteristic wryness he replied: "It could have been worse - I could have been the new Dan Brown."
In fact, the Norwegian writer's success is beginning to rival both his late Swedish contemporary and the author of The Da Vinci Code. Apart from the fact that Nesbo is now (according to his publishers) selling one book every 23 seconds, Hollywood success beckons, as the film of Headhunters has had Mark Wahlberg hungry for the remake rights. Nesbo's The Snowman is shortly to be filmed by no less than Martin Scorsese.
After several books featuring his emotionally battered detective Harry Hole, which combined first-rate storytelling with mordant social commitment, Nesbo's days as a pop star seemed very remote. But The Snowman's successor The Leopard won less critical favour, moving into international blockbuster territory. Now, reassuringly, we have Harry back in Oslo, tackling a very personal case involving the son, Oleg, of his ex-partner Rakel.
Oleg is a youthful drug dealer who may have committed a murder, and Phantom has the author back on edgy, caustic form. We have seen Harry's fractious relationship with Rakel in earlier books, and his reconnection with her here is via her troubled son, who had regarded the detective as a surrogate father.
Substance-abusing Oleg has been accused of killing a fellow addict. The victim died in a squalid house that both shared, and forensic evidence points at Rakel's luckless son.
He has only one thing going for him – Harry Hole's customary reluctance to accept the obvious. As Harry plunges into the dangerous drug culture of the city, he discovers that a new synthetic drug "violin" is cutting a swathe through Oslo's addicts. The most pressing agenda for Harry becomes tracking down the ruthless drug lords behind a destructive trade.
Nesbo, as ever, is not interested in painting a tourist-friendly view of his country. He banishes cliché in this overworked genre - his recovering-alcoholic, shambolic, rule-breaking detective is somehow always surprising us.
Some readers may have problems with a device recently used by Swedish writer Mons Kallentoft – narrative passages delivered by a dead man – but any reservations are brushed aside by the sheer sweep of the characterisation on offer. The relationship between Harry and Rakel is truly multifaceted, and richer in nuance than anything else in the crime genre. Phantom will maintain Jo Nesbo's unstoppable momentum.
Barry Forshaw's 'Death in a Cold Climate' is published by Palgrave Macmillan
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This is what happens when you tattoo Charmander on yourself, drunk, and with no experience
- 2 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'