by James Wilson
According to an article published last month in a leading business magazine, the three best countries to live in today – if you are a woman – are Denmark, Sweden and Norway. You might not think so, however, if your notion of what it’s like to live in Scandinavia were based on Jo Nesbø novels. The Devil’s Star (first published in Norwegian in 2003; available in English in 2005) is the fifth novel, in a series of eleven thus far, featuring the brilliant, if seriously humanly flawed, homicide detective, Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department. Nesbø, who is also a musician and former journalist, is one of the most popular writers of crime fiction in both his native Norway and throughout the world. His particular subgenre, Scandinavian noir, is especially dark and violent, and the victims are almost exclusively women.
The Devil’s Star finds Inspector Hole chasing down the extremely rare phenomenon – in Norway at least – of the serial killer. So rare is such a murderer among Hole and his colleagues, in fact, that they are afraid, even unofficially amongst themselves, to use the term – “Do we dare to say it now?” they ask, after the third similar killing is discovered. Complicating the investigation for Hole, and an already complexly layered plot for the reader, is the fact that he suspects the other lead detective in the case, Tom Waaler, of corruption, criminality, and even of having murdered, some months previously, Hole’s work partner, who Hole believes had been on the brink of exposing Waaler. As one might expect, these two threads eventually intertwine, with a few others thrown in, and things get seriously convoluted. But in a good way, provided you’re fond of scratching your head.
Muddying already murky waters is the fact that Hole is disliked and distrusted by just about every other cop in Oslo, the main reason being that he embodies all the negative qualities that have become almost de rigueur among noir detectives since their evolution from the ‘hardboiled’ antiheroes of the 1930’s, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. That is to say, while they are very, very good at their jobs, they are complete failures as human beings. With what is beginning to become annoying consistency these days, contemporary police detectives are almost inevitably alcoholics, chain-smokers, divorced, estranged from their kids, friendless and incapable of sustaining any kind of meaningful human relationship. If they are not on the case, they wouldn’t help an old woman cross the street. Indeed, one is tempted to wonder whether Nesbø is not engaging in a bit of irreverent convention deconstruction in giving his detective what could be seen as a slightly farcical name (in its English version at least, in Norwegian his surname is pronounced with two syllables, and rhymes with ‘truly’).
However, as mentioned, Hole is a remarkably astute solver of seemingly opaque and impenetrable riddles, which makes him ideally suited for the case presented in The Devil’s Star. For, like many fictional serial killers, if not real life ones, the bad guy in this novel is not content with the murders themselves. Arguably even more important to him is the ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ game he plays with the policemen and women who are hunting him down. Barely perceptible and intricate clues – lost on all except the ultra alert and focussed Hole – are deliberately left to tease and frustrate the team of detectives. Though as a reader of The Devil’s Star one must buy into the fairly elaborate and artificial conventions of the crime fiction genre, if you’re willing to do so, the book definitely offers up an abundance of rewards. At just over 450 pages, it’s a slow-burn, but once you become engaged with both the intricacies of the double plot, and the layered depths of the main characters and their interrelationships, the read becomes more and more fascinating with each chapter.
Added to plot and character is an engaging handling of both temporal and spatial setting. Oslo itself might be regarded as a character, or at least, an essential contributing element. The districts, streets, and even bars drawn in the fictive world are also actual; Nesbø even provides a detailed street map. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the map of the city eventually becomes a key element in the solution of the crime, and, to crime fiction fans, this discovery is a moment of high pleasure. Additionally, the novel, which I suspect is refreshingly self-aware re its reliance on game-playing, stands a preconceived notion of Norwegian weather patterns on its head, and gives us the utterly unexpected, meteorologically. It even, for the lovers of the tongue-in-cheek, offers growls of thunder and cracks of lightning to accompany its grisly, operatic climax.
Literary self-consciousness may also be evident in more than the lead detective’s name. Another genre convention honoured by the text is the killer eventually being afforded an opportunity to expound upon the clever intricacies of his devilish plans. What becomes abundantly clear is that this killer has read his share of crime fiction. And Nesbø’s use of a GB Shaw play and its subsequent Broadway musical version becomes a moment of brilliant meta-theatricality for any readers that way inclined. This may be off-putting for some, but I found it an amusing antidote to the otherwise dark, dark world of Scandinavian noir.
Perhaps not quite in the ‘cuddle fiction’ category, then, unless you’re also fond of blood pudding, The Devil’s Star will nevertheless grip you, challenge you, probably scare you, and even disgust you a little, but it might also, seemingly counter-intuitively, amuse you from time to time, though not in ways you might expect from crime fiction. Not a bad book to have on your table, given that long winter nights look to have settled in in these parts.
The Devil’s Star is on a shelf in the Lennoxville Library