Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review of The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett, published by Vintage (2006, in Norwegian 2003)

I picked up The Devil’s Star in Murder Ink in Dublin. It’s the fifth book in the police procedural series charting the cases of Olso detective, Inspector Harry Hole, though the first one I’ve read.

Harry Hole.

The lone wolf, the drunk, the department’s enfant terrible and, apart from Tom Waaler, the best detective on the sixth floor. But for that and the fact that Bjarne Møller had over the years developed a sort of perverse penchant for putting his head on the block for this policeman with the serious drinking problem, Harry Hole would have been out years ago.

As this extract from near the start of the novel reveals, Harry Hole is a detective straight from the maverick, flawed but genius, anti-hero mould, tolerated by his immediate superior because despite the drunkenness and insubordination he solves particularly difficult crimes. His rival and nemesis is Tom Waaler, who is everything Hole isn’t – ordered, ambitious, liked by his peers, and Harry suspects corrupt, operating as a major underworld figure and using his police status to cover his tracks. This book finds Hole in a drunken stupor, bitter because his last investigation didn’t resolve itself as hoped and his on/off relationship with his girlfriend - Rakel - is presently on hold. Given half his fellow detectives are taking their summer break, Hole is reluctantly partnered with Waaler and put to work to solve a murder in which a young woman has been shot through the forehead, a finger severed from her left hand, and a tiny red diamond cut in a pentagon pattern placed behind her eyelid. Shortly afterwards Hole is put on notice to quit the police force after too many indiscretions and then a second woman disappears and it appears that a serial killer is stalking Oslo. Harry has only a couple of weeks to get his life back into order, build bridges with Rakel, bring the killer to justice, and discover if Waaler is the person he thinks he is before he’s forced back into civilian life for good.

The Devil Star starts relatively sedately, slowly building up speed as it weaves a complex tale, building up to the inevitable finale. It’s a little formulaic in its characterization and plotting, parts of the plot stretch belief and imagination through implausible coincidence, and one part of the ending is telegraphed right from the start, but its still a highly enjoyable read and I zipped through it, picking it up at every opportunity so I could find out what happened next. Nesbø is particularly good at keeping the pace and tension high, running several sub-plots simultaneously and linking them in and out of each other, and Harry Hole, despite his many flaws, has enough redeeming features to make him an interesting and likeable anti-hero. Don Bartlett has done an excellent job of translation, retaining some nice turns of phrase, and making sure that the conversations work properly in English and the narrative flows along. All in all, an enjoyable read and I’ll be keeping an eye out for other books in the series.

Jo Nesbø’s website


Maxine Clarke said...

Like you, I read this one first owing to the confusing "order" on Amazon and the incorrect publishing order of the English-language translations. I was not as impressed by The Devil's Star as some other bloggers, but when I eventually read the two previous books - The Redbreast and Nemesis - its details took on much more depth and emotional resonance. I think the character of Harry Hole is an attractive creation, and I like much of the way the author writes. But I agree that the outcome of his plots is usually crazy. Nemsis was particularly bonkers in this regard and I am still confused by the denoument of The Redbreast! I still classify these as "thumping good reads", however. The Redeemer, which I've just read, is pretty good.

Rob Kitchin said...

Hi Maxine. Yes, fits the 'thumping good read' category, but it could have still achieved this and kept the plot credible all the way through. What I'd like to do is start the series from book 1 and backfill rather than read any more out of sequence and then maybe, as you say, the later books will resonate properly.

Dorte H said...

I think most Scandinavian readers of Nesbø begin with his third novel and discount no 1 and 2. I have read the first (about a serial killer in Australia), which is okay but not nearly as exceptional as the ones which take place in Oslo. The plots of the first couple are not in any way related to the later ones so it makes sense to catch up from number 3.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks, Dorte, I'll keep a look out for number 3 and start from there. I'll also keep an eye on your blog!