Harvill Secker, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Gjenferd, 2011
translated by Don Bartlett
(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.