Monday, March 26, 2012

Phantom, by Jo Nesbø

Harvill Secker, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Gjenferd, 2011
translated by Don Bartlett
451 pp
(hard cover ed.)

"Norway is a little fairy-tale land. But I've spent the last two years in the real world...And the real world is driven by two types of people. Those who want power and those who want money. The first want a statue, the second enjoyment."
I'd quite forgotten how tense I get while reading one of Nesbø's Harry Hole novels; a little while into the novel upon  Harry's return to Oslo and it all came back to me.  Harry is a character I've become rather attached to over the years, but I've also become used to things not going so well for him over the course of the series. Phantom is the ninth installment of this series and the seventh to be translated into English; if you've been a faithful follower of Nesbø's novels, you definitely do not want to miss this one.   If you are just beginning with Nesbø, do not, I repeat, do not make this your first experience.

A few years have passed since Harry Hole was last in Oslo;  when we last saw him he was on his way back to Hong Kong, where he retreated to clean himself up and deal with the demons plaguing his life, having to do mainly with his relationship with Rakel.  Now he's back and it's personal: Rakel's son Oleg is in prison, after being incarcerated for killing a heroin addict named Gusto.  Everything points to Oleg as the shooter; Harry doesn't believe it and returns to clear his name.  Having been officially warned to stay away from this particular case by his former colleagues, Harry being Harry is not content to sit idly by and finds himself in the middle of his own private investigation that leads him into the murky depths of drug addiction and production, gang wars, corruption and a reclusive but powerful Russian known as Dubai. Dubai, "a kind of phantom ... like the wind, impossible to catch," has worked to corner the market on a new drug called Violin, which offers its users a prolonged euphoria, making it the newest high of choice among heroin users, a "junkie's dream," "stronger than heroin, longer effect, and little chance of OD'ing." 

The story is related through different viewpoints, one of which is from a dying Gusto.  It is here where the reader discovers how Oleg becomes involved in events that will ultimately lead him to prison.  Normally I dislike the "voice from the grave" approach, or actually in this case the "as I lay dying"  device, but here it is engaged to provide necessary backstory and it works as a focal point for bringing together the various storylines  as they are played out individually throughout the novel -- at least, up to a point.

Phantom is an intensely bleak read -- from the sadness of the addicts on the streets doing whatever is necessary to score to the final moments of the novel, the atmosphere Nesbø creates is one of sheer darkness, alleviated here and there with some humorous moments, including a neck wound held together by duct tape, or the running gags about his one and only suit.   And Harry's back with his trademark angst, this time ruminating over his shortcomings with Oleg who looked on him as a dad in years past, and the "curse" he's carried with him in which he realizes that all of those he loves eventually suffer at his hands.

 At the same time, it's a very compelling read; so much so  that it's easy to overlook a few other standard Nesbø trademarks, including the sometimes over-the-top verbosity, sometimes clunky dialogue, scenes that could have been easily shortened with no damage to the overall story, and related plot lines that capture your interest then sort of fade out.   The second half of the book is where the action really picks up and where the story becomes its most intense, with many twists and turns that I never saw coming, and writing that maintains a tightly-strung tension, literally up until the very last moment.

Die-hard Harry Hole fans should consider a kleenex as a necessary accompaniment to this  novel, and you'll seriously feel the need to put the book down, get up, go outside and find some sunlight as you get into the story.  I'm happy to see that the Stieg Larsson comparison is gone from the cover (yay!); Nesbø has no need of putting his work up against that of anyone else -- his standing in crime fiction, Scandinavian or otherwise, needs no bolstering by setting his work against that of others.   Do not miss this book if you are continuing the series, and as I noted above, you should absolutely NOT start the series with this story.  To the book's naysayers I can only answer with the following: this is not great literature, but it's a hell of a ride.


  1. This is a great blog! Being Norwegian, I take a bit of pride in the fact that Scandinavian crime writers are now so popular abroad, and you've also introduced me to several new authors. Keep up the great work!

    (Anyone who hasn't read 'Phantom' should probably skip the rest of this comment. I tried not to go too far into spoiler territory, but it still might contain too much information.)

    I really liked 'Phantom' as well, if "liked" is the right word. The ending affected me in a way crime fiction almost never does. In Norwegian-language interviews, Nesbø has been very ambiguous about whether the ending is really as it seems, whether this question will be resolved in the next book, and, of course, whether there will be a next book at all. That said, he's also said that what happens at the end will happen at some point, and that the Harry Hole series will definitely come to an unambiguous end sooner or later. Still, I'm holding out hope that he has at least one more HH novel in him, if only because that would make the series a Sjöwall-Wahlöö/Arne Dahl-style decalogy, which I think would be fitting.

    1. Hi! Thanks for your comments and especially for pointing out the spoiler. I must say I was a bit shocked at the end, but the ambiguity was a hopeful sign for the future.

      I was a bit reluctant to dive into Scandinavian crime fiction again, since once I'm there, I tend to stay there and my other books get a bit neglected. But with Nesbo's new book, the new one coming from Indridason and other books coming up by great Scandinavian crime writers (who I just love), I can't help myself!

  2. I just finished reading...I can't say I'm sad because I can't believe Harry Hole would die like this....Everything seems unfinished. However, Nesbo is not afraid to kill of key characters as we've seen in most of his books. No one is off limits, but Hole? I read The Leopard first, then went back and read all that were translated into English in the proper order. I got through Headhunters as well. I guess we'll see, but I can't believe it.

    1. Hi! Thanks for coming by.

      Well, someone once told me that there comes a point when an author is ready to end his series run. I remember thinking how disappointed I was when Henning Mankell ended the Wallander series; that was pretty final but here, well, there may be a chance that Harry's coming back. Who knows? I know there will be a lot of happy people if that happens.

    2. no one says Harry removed the bullet proof vest. I'm sure HH is NOT dead

    3. Maybe we should start a pool: is HH dead or will there be another book?

  3. There are few books that grip you from page one to the last one,Jo Nesbo does this every time,have read all the English translations and was so sad when Harry appears to have died,get him to hospital Joe revive him and bring him back.

    1. It isn't just Harry "dying" that leaves us hanging. We also have Oleg running off into the night and Rakel getting on a plane that will not lead her to Harry, and Bellman the corrupt cop getting away with it. Too many loose threads that any novelist would take care of at the end of a book. And in all the previous Harry Hole novels, there was resolutions....bad guys got caught, good guys lived. And there was a sense of an ending that things for all the characters were at least in a nuetral okayness. So......there just has to be another, Harry Hole book, right???

    2. Margo -- as they so proudly say in Minnesota, yah, you becha!!

  4. I finished reading Phanton a week ago, and i have been feeling a bit unsettled about Harry's fate haha so i thought i would seek out a few reviews of the book. Your review is nicely observed! I have read all of the English-language Harry books, I did not read Headhunters but saw the film (which was fun though i did not know before-hand that it was a non-Harry Hole i kept waiting for Harry to arrive on screen.) I was annoyed with the end of Wallander, because I thought he deserved better than the grim diagnosis he is left with. But I suppose Mankell prepared us the whole time, with his inability to make new friends, etc. And in retrospect Nesbo also prepared me for the end of Harry's story. I cannot say I am happy with this conclusion to the Harry story, but i hold out hope that someday the remaining two Harry books will be translated into English. I asked a Norwegian online friend, he explained that his last name should be pronounced Whoule, which helped, because I was always amused by the name Harry Hole (in a juvenile sense).


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