THE LEOPARD is the eighth of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels, and the first thing to be said about it is that it’s a very big book indeed. At 624 pages it’s rather more than a door-stop; it’s a small suitcase, and will account for most of your carry-on luggage should you decide to take it away on holidays for a beach read.
If you do take it away, it’ll make for a very good beach read indeed, albeit a rather dark one. Nesbo sets up THE LEOPARD in the initial stages as a conventional serial killer novel, with Hole in pursuit of a particularly fiendish murderer. Indeed, there’s a quasi-gothic feel to the opening section, in which the opium-raddled Hole (shades of Sherlock Holmes) investigates murders which have been enacted by a device called a ‘Leopold’s apple’, which originated in the colonial days of the Belgian Congo. A metal ‘apple’ is placed in the victim’s mouth; when a string is pulled, 24 spikes shoot out of the ‘apple’ and into the victim’s head. Death isn’t necessarily instantaneous; one of the victims, for example, drowns while choking on her own blood.
There’s a disjointed feel to the opening 100 pages or so, as Nesbo re-establishes Hole in Oslo. This is in part because there’s a political aspect to the novel, as the very existence of the Crime Squad is threatened by Kripos, led by Mikael Bellman. Bellman, for reasons not fully explained, wants Kripos to take over all the murder cases in Norway, and Bellman becomes as much of a nemesis to Harry as the killer he is investigating.
Another reason for the stop-start momentum in the early stages is Nesbo’s insistence on mythologising Harry. Hole is already a legend in Norwegian policing, the man who brought down the terrifying Snowman, along with other high profile criminals, as established in previous novels. To a large extent, Hole is a conventional protagonist in the police procedural sub-genre: a loner, a rebel against the system, a hard-drinking addict to justice for its own sake, a man wounded by life and carrying a torch for a lost love, a man not noticeably handsome yet irresistible to women. On page 91, for example, the world-weary Harry finds himself attracted to his co-worker, Kaja Solness:
It was pathetic, but his heart had been beating a bit faster while he waited for her. Fifteen years ago that would have annoyed him, but he had resigned himself and accepted the banal fact that a woman’s beauty would always have this modicum of power over him.There’s something irritatingly trite, almost adolescent, about Nesbo’s insistence that one of the fundamental drives of any man should be ‘banal’, and that beauty has only a ‘modicum of power’ over him. Harry believes he should be above what he perceives as the petty messiness of life and love; Nesbo wants us to believe that Harry is a kind of super-man. Again, on page 63:
Harry jumped up so quickly he went dizzy, grabbed the file, knew it was too thick, but still managed to tear it in two.Another aspect of the early stages of the novel that’s a little hard to swallow is Harry’s relationship with Katrine Bratt, a former fellow police detective with Crime Squad, now in a mental institution after her brush with the Snowman in Nesbo’s previous novel. Naturally, there is a sexual attraction; what’s less convincing is that the recovering Bratt proves to be something of a whizz at uncovering essential information on the internet whenever Nesbo needs the plot to move forward, despite the fact that she can only access a communal computer in the mental institution’s day-room.
Once the novel settles into its stride, however, and providing you’re happy to accept Harry’s high-falutin’ notions of himself, THE LEOPARD quickly becomes an enjoyable sprawling epic. It’s a globe-trotting tale too, moving from Hong Kong to Norway and on to the Congo and Rwanda, although most of the action and investigation takes place in Norway. Nesbo delights in unleashing a whole shoal of red herrings, although to be fair he does put the reader on high alert from the early stages, when a character we believe to be a sinister sociopath, and possibly a killer, turns out to be a victim. From that point on it’s wise to take nothing for granted, and Nesbo even goes so far as to have the great Harry himself deceived on a number of occasions.
It’s to Nesbo’s credit that THE LEOPARD is a hugely ambitious novel; given his success to date (five million books sold, and counting), the easy option would have been to simply repeat his formula. Yet THE LEOPARD offers much more than the conventional police procedural; while the investigation itself is realistically pain-staking, and subject to a number of reverses, there are other dimensions to the story, such as Harry’s relationship with his dying father. That relationship, almost inevitably, given Hole’s persona, is characterised by conflict, but it also adds a poignant touch that at times borders on the sentimental, and provides a neat counterpoint to the rigidly professional way Harry goes about his investigation.
His relationship with Kaja Solness offers another aspect, although this one is less convincing. Solness is hauntingly beautiful, as fictional policewomen tend to be, and is an interesting character in her own right, given that her own motives and ambitions don’t always chime with Harry’s. It’s probably not giving away too much to reveal that Harry and Kaja are drawn to one another, and the conventions of the novel almost demand it; that said, their attraction, when it finally blossoms into the white-heat of lust, becomes too emotionally intimate and profound to be convincing. Again, there’s the sense that Nesbo is shoe-horning his characters into a particular situation in order to move the plot along.
That said, THE LEOPARD is largely an enjoyable read. Harry eventually exerts the gravity of a black hole, providing you’re willing to play along with his self-reverential opinion of himself; the characters are for the most part well drawn and fully fleshed, although Harry’s policeman nemesis, Mikael Bellman, is a little too crudely constructed, being a philanderer and potential if not actual sexual deviant, and a man willing to betray all and sundry in order to further his career. Meanwhile, large chunks of the novel take place in the ‘wastelands’ of northern Norway, a virtually lawless place reminiscent of the old Wild West, and Nesbo’s descriptions of the physical landscape are brilliant at communicating their bleak, haunting beauty.
The cover of THE LEOPARD comes complete with a stamp declaring Nesbo ‘the next Stieg Larsson’, a statement that may well be true in terms of Nesbo’s future popularity, although even the most casual reading will confirm that Nesbo is by far the superior writer. THE LEOPARD is easily as complex and ambitious a novel as any of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, but it’s a much more enjoyable read, not least, I suspect, because of the excellent work by Don Bartlett, a regular translator of Nesbo’s work novels. Personally, I preferred THE SNOWMAN, Nesbo’s previous offering, on the basis that it was tauter and more streamlined, but there’s no doubt that fans of Stieg Larsson will find plenty to enjoy here. - Declan Burke