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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent