Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Leopard, by Jo Nesbø

Harvill Secker, 2010
translated by Don Bartlett
originally published as Panserhjerte, 2009
619 pp.

It is just a crying shame that this novel is not going to be available in the U.S. right away, because really, American readers of Jo Nesbø are missing out on one of the very best books in the entire series. I couldn't even purchase a copy from Book Depository directly, so I had to take the roundabout alternative and purchase from BD through Amazon. It's a bit more expensive, but well worth it. Trust me, after finishing The Snowman, you are going to want to read this book as quickly as possible.

In fact, in this episode of the Harry Hole series, the story picks up shortly after the events of The Snowman, which (without giving too much away) took their physical and emotional toll on Harry, sending him as far away from Norway and the police department as possible to Hong Kong. There he lives in squalor, bets money he doesn't have on the horses and runs up serious debts that prevent him from leaving the country. He also discovers that opium lessens his pain and allows him to stay away from the booze. But events back in Norway soon require his presence, and Detective Kaja Solness has come to Hong Kong to collect him and bring him back to Oslo. Harry adamantly refuses, but then relents when it turns out that his father is seriously ill and in the hospital. When he returns, he discovers that there's another serial killer on the loose, a person who has killed two people in a most gruesome fashion and leaves behind no evidence. More murders occur, but he's facing an even tougher problem. His colleagues in the Crime Squad, are in a fight with the Kripos (Krimpolitisentralen) over control of murder investigations, a battle that involves not just the two rival groups, but the future careers of many of Harry's colleagues and even Harry himself. The Kripos have taken jurisdiction over this series of murders, and the investigation is in the hands of Bellman -- a politico who is all about power and control, as opposed to Harry, who wants to solve the case and bring the perpetrator to justice. While this situation complicates matters for the Crime Squad, it doesn't stop Harry from doing his own investigation. Harry gets unofficial assistance from some of his colleagues, as well as some clandestine help from an old friend to figure out what it is that connects the victims together. Once he figures this out, he believes, it will help him with the who and the why. But this is not going to be easy. It will take all that Harry has to give, which right now isn't that much, and will take him back and forth across the globe before his job is done.

The character of Harry Hole is quite possibly at his best in this novel, even though emotionally he's at his lowest point. He has become a very real person here, battling through his personal demons which makes him a bit reckless and often prone to acting without thinking. He warns others who want to work with him that it is his pattern to drag them down alongside himself, and he is not wrong. But despite all of his personal issues, Harry is the consummate detective, and will not let go of the case until it is finished, no matter what means he has to use to get the job done.

Nesbø has done an incredible job with The Leopard, and readers of crime fiction, especially those who have followed Nesbø's series from the beginning, will in no way be disappointed. He is able to pique the reader's interest at the very start of the novel with a most nasty crime and a bad guy who has absolutely no conscience, then ratchet up the tension level little by little until it is almost impossible to put the book down. His plotting is meticulous, but it is his attention to detail, the addition of the tension between the two police groups, and above all his portrayal of Harry Hole on a most human level that makes this story work and work well. There are also several references to Hole's other cases here and there throughout the story, bringing to mind all that this man has been through.

On the downside, The Leopard is incredibly long, and I found some of it a bit confusing at times, especially regarding one of the subplots of the novel. It moves slowly in several parts to the point where you think you might be trying to crawl through jello. And yes, there are some very over-the-top moments that Nesbø seems to enjoy throwing into each one of his novels that make the action a little hard to swallow sometimes. However, it is probably my favorite of the series, and although it took some time to read, it was well worth every second. I started this on an airplane, and as much as I hate flying, I forgot where I was for the entire 5 hours because I was so caught up in the story. Do not make The Leopard your introduction to the Harry Hole series -- if nothing else, at least read The Snowman, so you will have an understanding of Harry's mindset going into this one, which is in many ways the continuation of the latter. Better yet, start with The Redbreast and read your way through one of the best crime fiction series currently available.

 crime fiction from Norway


  1. I agree this book is a compulsive read, though having read the previous novels I kind of "get" their structure so the plot/criminal were not too hard to get, for me (though some aspects overcomplicated). I did find some elements very over the top (eg the avalanche) and was disgusted by the unnecessary torture/pain descriptions (which were at least ringfenced). But overall, I agree, a very racing read. For me, the strongest elements are the character of Harry and the sense of place, especially the Oslo sections. Will Harry ever learn, do you think, about going into obvious dangerous situations with no backup, etc?

    Peter Temple is the only other crime fiction author I know where the reader has to read every sentence of every paragraph, just about, to have any chance at all of working it all out before the detective.

  2. Hi Maxine
    Thanks for coming by. I agree that Nesbo does tend to overcomplicate things at times, and my main criticism of all of his novels is that he does go way over the top with the bad guy carrying out the crimes, as well as with some of the crimes themselves. Torture: yes, you're correct...there's no need to get so graphic. But I do have to say that even taking those things into consideration, he still manages to generate some "rollicking good yarns," and they appeal to my inner detective self.

    I'm of two minds about figuring out the killer before the end in any crime fiction novel. First, if I do figure it out and I'm right, I'm happy, but disappointed that the author wasn't a bit more clever; second, if I don't figure it out, I'm a bit upset with myself but I'm thrilled that the author was able to keep me in suspense!

  3. Totally agree about the conflict in the "guessing the criminal" conundrum, Nancy!


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