The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbø, trans Don Bartlett

Icy blasts from an evil past
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The furore surrounding Günter Grass's war record is symptomatic of the problems arising from the re-examination of recent European history. Secret archives are now open; collaborators are being exposed. Norway is generally reckoned to have had a "good war" - gallant resistance, defiant king - with what we tend to think of as the singular exception of the eponymous Quisling. Yet the Norwegian struggle with the darker forces of its Scandinavian heritage is the principal theme in this engrossing yet flawed novel, which cuts back and forth between modern times and the Second World War.

We begin with millennial celebrations and the security arrangements for Bill Clinton's state visit to Norway. Harry Hole, a heavy-drinking policeman with his life in pieces, steps out of line and is transferred to a desk job monitoring resurgent fascist groups. The murder of an old soldier, his throat cut in a highly professional manner, leads back to the war, the siege of Leningrad and a group of pro-Nazi Norwegian snipers fighting for Germany. It comes as a surprise to learn that about 15,000 Norwegians volunteered to serve on the Eastern Front, where their life expectancy was horribly brief. Not all of these young men were fascist sympathisers; some were apolitical country boys who joined out of hunger.

Harry's problem is to identify a group who appear to have survived to connect with neo-Nazi thugs. Soon he is on the trail of a psychopathic killer with a South African involvement. The fast-moving investigation takes Harry and a female officer into dangerous territory, penetrating brutal gangs of skinheads and uncovering official corruption. And Harry has fallen in love, with a woman whose father may be closely involved.

Jo Nesbø has a credibly scary line on the power of corruption, and his complex plot culminates in a nail-biting episode with overtones of The Day of the Jackal. The descriptions of sub-zero horrors in wartime Leningrad are superb, but the modern narrative rests on some absurd coincidences, plus the stereotypical character of the embittered loner detective. This book has a flawed brilliance.