Harvill Secker, £12.99, 611pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Leopard, By Jo Nesbø, trans.Don Bartlett

The horrific events that concluded Jo Nesbø's The Snowman have taken an enormous toll on Detective Harry Hole, tough and illusion-free though he might be. So when we first meet him in that novel's successor, The Leopard, we are not surprised that he has as good as renounced his Norwegian life, with its network of relationships and obligations. An alcoholic, he now prefers, out in Hong Kong, the temporary oblivions of opium, and so associates not with his usual cronies, fellow law-enforcers, but with law-evaders.

But the reputation Harry has left behind him has its own stubborn life. Many of his cases, pre-eminently that of The Snowman, were not just high-profile but national talking-points and crime-history benchmarks. His credentials as tracker-down of serial killers are unsurpassable. Therefore, when Norway seems plagued by another multiple murderer, with a woman MP among the victims, Kaja Solness from Oslo Police Crime Squad is dispatched to haul Hole out of Hong Kong's stews and dens. She has a psychological weapon to aid her: Harry's father, of whom, as Nesbø readers know, the detective is diffidently fond, is ill - terminally, it transpires. If this can't bring Harry back to Oslo, what could?

A reluctant returnee, Harry nonetheless acknowledges "a huge unalloyed pleasure at being here. In Oslo. Home." For beyond all the squalor and cruelties which he faces in the course of his detective work, beyond the dissatisfactions of his private life, there exist the undyingly fascinating complexities of humanity as evidenced in the city that he, a well-travelled man, knows better than anywhere.

Oslo permeates The Leopard no less than it does Nesbø's other fiction, from the compact city centre and the park of St Hanshaugen, near which lies Harry's often neglected flat, south-east to the 1960s suburb of Manglerud, the native quarter of his newest inside opponent (maverick Harry almost always has one): Mikael Bellman of the rival unit Kripos. Nesbø, a fierce critic of any tendency on Norway's part to think too well of itself (see The Redbreast), is truly one of his capital's great literary celebrants, precisely because he presents it as a variegated whole rather than with a local-colourist's selectivity.

Jo Nesbø says The Leopard is very much Harry Hole's own book, treating his personal development with the amplitude the man, central to seven previous novels, has earned. And Harry's dealings with Øystein, his oldest schoolmate (who suggests that all they had in common was that "no-one else wanted to be pals with us"); with Kaja Solness, whom he cannot ever quite regard as the equal of his former lover, Rakel; with his Down's Syndrome sister, and with his dying schoolteacher father, have the quality of tender inwardness needed to offset the violence and sadistic mayhem.

Yet the book invites one, from its frightening opening pages which detail a woman's torture, terror and death, to undertake a journey of which bemusement, suspense, extreme situations and nervous anxiety are the dominant features. In accepting this we encounter both its most arresting merits, and its disconcerting flaws.

The case for which Hole is brought back to Oslo involves the deaths of a succession of women (and one young man), all of whom spent one night in a remote hostel near Ustaoset, in the heartland of the Norwegian mountains. In winter, visitors travel there by snowmobile over an empty landscape whose contours have been "levelled... until they were one huge ocean in which the tall mountain, Hallingskarvet, towered like a menacing monster wave".

This mountain has its human counterpart: insistent hatred, deriving from painful unassimilated experience and goading its possessor into dealing out suffering and death. Nesbø's insight into inherited conflict – of which this novel affords a disturbing double instance – must emanate from his own declared family background. His father fought for the Germans in the Second World War, his mother for the Resistance, this duality being the emotional foundation of The Redbreast.

Nesbø's imaginative preoccupation with division, above all in the individual, makes him a distinctively Norwegian writer. His mentors – Ibsen, Hamsun - have magisterially contrasted the wild with the harmonious, the lover or explorer with the conscientious citizen, the stern moralist with the easy-going hedonist. This distinguishes him from the Swedes Mankell and Larsson, to whom he is so often compared.

But the huge success of his Hole novels – since August 2010, the UK paperback of The Snowman has sold 250,000 copies – has increasingly set Nesbø both alongside these two writers and (promotionally) against them. The Leopard's unflagging narrative tension, breathtaking surprises and many confrontations with half-suspected treachery (well served by translator Don Bartlett's ear for dialogue) are superb. But Hole's too-numerous physical endurance tests, his breakneck excursions abroad (to the war-beset Rwanda-Congo frontier), fail to satisfy because they so obviously belong to bestsellerdom, despite (maybe because of) the extraordinarily intricate plotting that has arranged them. Nesbø has no need for a-shock-a-page (though mercifully the shocks here are less baroque than in The Snowman). His imagination is forceful enough to play on its riven subjects without sensationalist devices.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?