What path in life do you take if you’re getting older, you’re a loner who realizes you’re lonely, your job sucks in particular, and life sucks in general? Several characters grapple with this question in this dark Norwegian police procedural The Leopard, none more so than Oslo detective Harry Hole, who takes a leave from the force, opting for opium in Hong Kong as a means of temporary oblivion.
Harry is still “in recovery” from the brutal serial killer that he chased in the previous Nesbo book, The Snowman. That case led to a colleague’s mental breakdown, and Harry isn’t far from one himself. He is also mourning the lack of contact from his one love Rakel and her son Oleg, with whom Harry was very close. Rakel took Oleg and fled Oslo after being almost killed by The Snowman.
Meanwhile, back in Oslo, another vicious serial killer is striking, using a device called Leopold’s Apple to torture and kill his victims. Harry’s boss sends an attractive detective, Kaja Solnes, to lure Harry to return to Oslo with whatever it takes. But nothing works until Kaja reveals that Harry’s father Olav is in the hospital, suffering from cancer, with not much time to live.
So Harry goes back, and immediately is thrust in the middle of a turf war between two branches of the Ministry of Justice for control of the investigation. His fame as a detective also makes him the focus of the killer, who is fascinated by Harry (but not in a good way, of course!) And the bodies keep piling up.
Discussion: This Harry Hole book is bleaker and more unsentimental than the others. Harry is out of control for much of the time: drunk, high, and vomiting. Moreover, he is viciously attacked and barely escapes death more often than seems reasonable, even for the indominable Harry Hole. (And Harry himself expresses something to the effect of “I can’t believe it” each time.) It doesn’t truly detract from the story as it might in the hands of less able authors. For one thing, Harry does not escape unscathed from these encounters; on the contrary, increasingly his disfigurement makes him look as if he’s wearing a garish Halloween costume, according to a friend. Psychologically, he is even worse off: criminal confessions make him nauseated, and time with friends and family moves him to tears.
His physical presence still manages to disarm and charm. He is 6’4”, with a shaven skull, “the alcoholic’s washed out, pale blue irises,” and a “determined chin with the surprisingly gentle, almost beautiful mouth.” As his scars accumulate in the book, he needs almost no persuasion to scare off those who would intimidate him, but also gains an irresistible appeal for those who would want to comfort him.
His thoughts are remarkably similar to those who want to kill him. He knows that, like them, he is “a prisoner of his own behaviour patterns whereby in reality every action was a compulsive action.” Like the serial killer, he muses about life as a process of destruction, with the only suspense being whether we will be destroyed in one sudden act or slowly.
In the end, in this book with so many references to movies (albeit mostly those directed by Altman), one can’t help being convinced that if this isn’t a tribute of sorts to “Chinatown,” then nothing is. The parallels, which I hesitate to enumerate so as not to incur spoilers, are incredible. If you have already read the book however, and you want to see how close the two works are, you can refresh your memory of the themes of “Chinatown” at this site. (Nesbo himself, it should be noted, states that the overriding themes of the book are loyalty, and fathers and sons. And it certainly is about those too. But perhaps on an unconscious level, he added another: I think it’s hard to read this and not see “Chinatown” as well!)
Evaluation: Love, love, love Jo Nesbo. There are plenty of fun twists, turns, and red herrings that keep you glued to your seat. This is the eighth book featuring detective Harry Hole, and the fifth translated into English. In sequence, it follows the best-selling book The Snowman. I recommend following the sequence in this case, especially with respect to reading The Snowman first. Note it is also the longest of the Harry Hole novels so far, but I swear you won’t care!
Harry Hole is about the same size and apparent physical formidability as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Harry is much more realistic, however, in that unlike Reacher, Harry often comes in second in physical contretemps, and suffers appalling injuries in this book.
Nesbo is as adept as any mystery writer in carefully, but unobtrusively, planting the seeds of the dénouement early in the narration. For example, we learn in the first 50 pages that Harry can load a pistol in the dark, and we can expect that skill to come in handy later on. We also learn he has a broken jaw, but we would never anticipate that that feature might become his most important asset.
This book is more than 600 pages long, but the twists in the story line drive it forward relentlessly. In the few moments when the pace seems to slow, Nesbo keeps the reader guessing about which characters are being described, referring to them only as “he” or “she.”
This book is not just skillfully contrived and executed—it’s downright exciting!
Published by Vintage Books, 2011