by Don Bartlett, Knopf, 2011, 283 pp., $25.95.
The seventh of eight Harry Hole (pronounced “Hooley”) novels, The Snowman is the first to be published in the United States. The series has been translated into 40 languages and has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.
Readers initiated into the series with this novel will probably find themselves immediately searching out the previous books (available in British editions).
The reward will be well-spent sleepless nights, if the gripping pages of this first American publication of Nesbo is any indication. Stieg Larsson’s trilogy about that girl with the dragon tattoo absolutely pales in comparison.
Harry Hole has just turned 40. He’s an inspector at the Crime Squad at the Oslo Police Headquarters. He is also an expert on international serial killings, having studied with American crime agencies and solved serial killings as far away from Norway as Australia. This time out, he is concentrating on what appears to be one of Oslo’s first serial killers.
The Snowman begins in 1980 with one of the most unsettling scenes to be found in recent fiction. A young boy waits in a snow-covered car as his mother climbs back in after an afternoon tryst with a man who isn’t her husband. Her son leans forward from the backseat and whispers in her ear, “We’re going to die,” as a snowman watches them drive away.
Twenty-four years later, snowmen begin to appear at the scenes of murders of other unfaithful women, and Harry Hole wants to know why. It is cold November, and Harry suspects his days are “going to get even darker.”
Harry is right. He is so good at his job that he realizes a more unsettling truth very soon after he begins his investigation: “‘I just have the feeling that someone is watching me the whole time, that someone is watching me now.’”
Someone is indeed watching in ways that Harry can’t imagine.
Nesbo has invested Harry with a humanity that is in direct contrast to the sadistic — the depraved — crimes that surround him. Harry is a good man, a man who works hard, who maintains a deep concern for all children, and who wants a relationship with a caring woman. The American rock music that’s always playing wherever Harry is often makes his life bearable.
But first snowfall has returned, and, with it, the killer now known as The Snowman, as well as the chilling suspicion that “we’re all more or less disposed to evil actions, but our disposition cannot exonerate us.” That is at the terrifying heart and the electrifying climax of The Snowman.
Forget about Stieg Larsson. Jo Nesbo is the real thing.
Steven Whitton is a Professor of English at Jacksonville State University.