by Jo Nesbø, translated from the Norwegian original by Don Bartlett; Knopf, 2011; 517 pages; $26.95
“It was like an animal that had been chained up, but it had been fed, it had grown and was stronger than ever. And now it was free.” A character in Jo Nesbø’s newest Harry Hole thriller describes what vengeance feels like and at the same time isolates the heart of this taut, violent and remarkably sensitive crime novel.
Harry Hole (pronounced “hooley”) first came to international attention last year in the bestselling “The Snowman.” That book began with a mesmerizing moment that chilled readers to their marrow (Steig Larsson, eat your heart out.) It also introduced to a wider audience a police investigator whose conscience remains primary. He is respected even by the most nefarious of killers, who in this new book calls Harry: “A driven man. A junkie. A man who does what he must to have what he wants, who walks over dead bodies if need be.”
And Harry needs all those qualities to help him identify the latest killer stalking victims in the frozen landscapes in and around Oslo.
“The Leopard” begins with a deeply violent scene that outdoes the opening moments of Nesbø’s last book: A woman drowns in her own blood, the victim of an ornate torture device inserted in her mouth. And there is that piece of rope and that bit of volcanic gravel. Harry, who has left Norway for the gambling, the heat and the opium of Hong Kong, is brought back to aid in the investigation.
And to reconnect with his father, dying of cancer and with his sister, who has “a touch of Down Syndrome.”
What Harry discovers is that the investigation he is needed for is being run by Kripos, a government faction at odds with Harry’s usual group of investigators. Kripos is run by Mikeal Bellman, a flashy opportunist who has none of Harry’s scruples and who wants control and notoriety. Harry investigates the case with his usual small team, this time against the Ministry’s orders.
It seems that the killer’s victims all shared the same cabin on a skiing trip, at which time a local policeman had also offered two of those skiers another place to stay overnight. Harry must deal with the nagging suspicion that “no one is as they seem, and most of life, apart from honest betrayal, is lies and deceit.”
The investigation will lead Harry from escaping an avalanche in the frozen north of Norway to negotiating a path through the corruption of steamy Rwanda. As he uncovers more information, Harry finds that his own life has chilling resonances to that of the killer he is tracking.
“The Leopard” is full of the usual Jo Nesbø touches: witty references to popular culture temper disquieting excursions into hearts of darkness. The book is unsettlingly violent, a page-turner as ruthless as it is fascinating. It is Dashiell Hammett on steroids, a thriller by one of the best writers currently working in the genre.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.