When snowmen begin to appear at the sites where women go missing, and subsequently turn up murdered, Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Force immediately makes the link between their deaths and a threatening letter he received some months earlier that referred to a snowman. Soon Harry and his squad – which includes Katrine Bratt, a new transfer from Bergen – have uncovered links to a host of other missing persons cases going back a number of decades, and they realise they might very well have Norway’s first documented case of a serial killer on their hands …
THE SNOWMAN is the seventh Harry Hole story to be translated into English, following well-received titles such as THE REDBREAST, NEMESIS and THE DEVIL’S STAR.
In many ways, Harry Hole is a compendium of crime fiction clichés. He’s a dysfunctional alcoholic with women trouble, a lone wolf who prefers to follow gut instinct rather than protocol. It’s hugely to Jo Nesbø’s credit that the whole package comes off more as a playful (albeit dark) homage to classic police detection than slavish imitation.
It helps that Hole has a sandpaper-dry sense of humour, and that Hole is not only acutely aware of his failings, but also how they impact on those closest to him – namely, his ex-girlfriend Rakel, who is now dating a Doctor Mathias, and Rakel’s son, Harry’s ‘son’, Oleg.
The fact that Harry is tracking a serial killer might seem on the face of it fairly predictable too – there appears to be far more serial killers in fiction than there are in reality. But The Snowman is not a plot-driven novel, even though its plot is complex and fast-paced. The real charm of the novel is Hole himself, and Jo Nesbø appears to be much more exercised by the idea of a character study than he is by the mechanics of the traditional who-dunnit. Hole is a complex character, whose battle with the bottle, his superiors, the Norwegian culture and – ultimately – his own self-loathing is a fascinating one.
In fact, Nesbø writes so well that he blurs the line between literary fiction and what can be easily categorised as crime fiction. Clean, crisp and bleakly elegant, his writing is not unlike that of noir masters such as James M. Cain, while is ability to breathe life into all of his characters, even the most minor, is the trait of a true storyteller.
He also manages to blend genres to a certain extent, introducing – via the serial killer pursuit – an element of horror that is persuasive because the evil it conveys has the banality of everyday life – snowmen, for example, take on a whole new meaning in the context of this novel. The fact that between 15% and 20% of children are born to ‘fathers’ who are not their biological fathers, which statistic plays into Hole’s investigation, is also a rather banal but potential horrifying fact, for male readers at least.
It’s often the case that lone wolf protagonists such as Hole are written in the first-person, but Nesbø uses the third-person omniscient view. It’s here that the novel’s main flaw occurs, towards the end, as the pace accelerates towards the denouement and Nesbø – who has offered a number of potential suspects as the serial killer – digresses from the action in order to provide the reader with enough back-story to provide plausible motivation for the killer. This, naturally, slows the pace of the story, but it also breaks faith with the reader a little, as crucial snippets of back-story and character that go to create the psychological make-up of the killer are available to neither the reader nor Harry Hole during the preceding investigation.
By the same token, and in the context of the novel overall, that’s a fairly minor criticism. It’s not often that you find yourself slowing down as you approach the end of a novel, the better to savour it; and it’s very rare that you do so when the novel is a crime thriller that is doing its best to drag you headlong to the finale. That Jo Nesbø manages to create a literally gut-churning level of excitement with his last 50 pages or so is no mean achievement, especially when this reader was deliberately slowing his reading down. THE SNOWMAN is first Nesbø novel I’ve read, but it proved more than enough to send me out in search of his back catalogue.
“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.