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Headhunters, By Jo Nesbo

Barry Forshaw
Thursday 06 October 2011 00:00 BST

If you don't like the idea of being manipulated by a novelist, then perhaps you should avoid the latest Jo Nesbo. Alfred Hitchcock relished the idea of playing a cinema audience like an orchestra, forcing us to feel sympathy for an unsympathetic character. That's the kind of legerdemain that Norway's most successful author pulls off here.

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Roger Brown is a wealthy and intelligent headhunter for a variety of corporations. He is also (in his creator's words) a "son of a bitch", and practises a successful sideline in art theft: a vocation that helps him maintain a splendidly appointed house and an exquisite wife, Diana.

Brown finds himself in dire financial straits, and is obliged to make some serious illegal money. He burgles the home of a candidate he has lined up for a prestigious job, and suddenly things go seriously amiss. He has targeted a Rubens as a way of settling his debts, but during the robbery Brown comes across disturbing facts about his wife. The following day, an associate in the robbery is discovered dead in his car, and Roger finds himself in the sights of another kind of headhunter.

If you are a Nesbo aficionado, hungry for another dose of his damaged but sympathetic copper Harry Hole, you will be obliged to adjust your expectations. The central character in this standalone novel is (on first impression) an unpleasant, manipulative piece of work, and it is a measure of the author's skill that we find ourselves thoroughly on his side. Recent novels by Nesbo have been imposing, lengthy pieces, but Headhunters is more economical. Written in a terse, pithy style (and translated in customarily nimble fashion by Don Bartlett), it concentrates on just three characters: two men, and a woman who is an object of desire for both.

It's no surprise that a successful film has already been made of the novel (the first of his books Nesbo has allowed to be filmed), as the cinematic quality of Headhunters makes it a particularly invigorating read. After the mass killings in Oslo, Nesbo was in demand as a commentator on the psychological state of his country (he had already written about Norwegian neo-Nazis), but his first novel to appear since those traumatic events is more straightforward than, say, The Snowman. If none of the author's usual insight into Norway is forthcoming, a sizeable measure of sheer entertainment is on offer. Nesboites might like the change of pace.

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