The Son by Jo Nesbø

son nesboThe Son by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett
Knopf, May 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

The Son begins in a very grim place: Sonny Loftus has been in prison over 10 years, he’s a heroin addict, and he listens to the harrowing confession of a fellow inmate. Loftus is not a typical protagonist: he’s sort of a Buddha, he’s a mess with a backstory that is revealed as the story progresses, and somehow he beats his heroin addiction and succeeds in his mission to avenge his father’s death and uncovers a corrupt scheme within the police department and beyond.

I’ve complained on this blog before about vigilante stories, but somehow I liked this one. Nesbø is so good at keeping a plot moving, and The Son was no exception. Also, the tone of this book worked for me: there are some serious moments about crime and criminal justice policies and how they work in corrupt institutions.  Those elements elevate the story of Sonny Loftus killing people related to the murder of his father, a police officer. And there is some levity: there is a bit at the end that made me laugh, which is rare for the ending of a crime novel, and it made me reinterpret the story as a whole as not being such a heavy-handed vigilante story.

Reading the first chapter was a rough go, and the main antagonist owes an awful lot to a certain character in The Wire, a show that Nesbø name-checks in the book (along with quite a bit of music, which was all pretty spot-on), but those are my only complaints about the story.

What Is Mine by Anne Holt

what is mineWhat Is Mine by Anne Holt, translated by Kari Dickson
Also published as Punishment
Warner Books, 2006
Originally published as Det som er mitt, 2001

While I’m eagerly awaiting the translation of more of Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen novels, I’m digging into her Vik and Stubo series, which was translated first. This was a very satisfying read that felt a bit different than the other series. Johanne Vik is an academic psychologist who consults on a case of series of child abductions. She is a sort of profiler, but that is not the bulk of the work she does in the novel. Stubo is a widower whose story is quite sad: he returned to the detective inspector post after his wife’s death, and this book feels only partly like a police procedural.

This novel has a lot of plot and a lot of characters. Vik begins the novel investigating the wrongfully imprisoned Aksel Seier: after serving nine years in prison for murdering and raping a very young child, he was released from prison without explanation. Later she becomes involved in a series of child abductions after resisting a great deal, and realistically so, I believe. And why do I recommend reading a novel about such horrible crimes? Because Holt is very good at developing her characters. This is a novel about how to work with such horrible crimes or how to live with such horrible crimes (or horrible events, period), and the portraits cover a range of grief and other responses.

This novel is a bit long, but that only stands out to me because the first and last sections of the book are very quickly paced (complete with lots of short chapters) while the middle is a bit more ponderous. The relationship between Vik and Stubo is not typical because they’re both a bit odd, and other characters stand out as well. It’s not exploitative of the horrible plot that is the center of the book, and that’s quite a feat.

Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum

dont look backDon’t Look Back by Karin Fossum, translated by Felicity David
Harcourt, 2002
Originally published as Se Deg ikke Tilbake!, 1996

I chose to read the second Inspector Sejer novel because I wanted to try a new-to-me author of a well-reviewed series, and I’m glad I did despite being burnt out by police procedurals in general in the last several months. The first novel in the series, Eva’s Eye, also published as In the Darkness, was published in 2013 in the US, but I’ve had book 2 waiting on my shelves for awhile so I chose to read it first.

Sejer is a widower still mourning the loss of his wife to cancer, and in this novel he works with Skarre, a young policeman half his age. Their district is large, covering a population of over 100,000 people, while the scene of the crimes at the heart of the novel take place in an incredibly small mountain town.

The subject matter of the book is pretty off-putting: a very young girl is missing in the first chapter of the book but found safe, and in the second chapter of the book a teenage girl is found dead by a mountain lake. Because the crimes took place in such a small community, there’s a bit of a locked-room feel, and there’s a bit of peeling away of people’s facades as Sejer and his colleague Skarre interview lots of residents. The stories Sejer and the rest of the police uncover are quite sad, and they lend emotional depth to the investigation.

Despite the sadness of the story, Sejer himself doesn’t seem overly gloomy, which is appealing in a protagonist. He feels empathy for the people he interviews not only because they were touched by the crimes at the center of the novel but because of their lives together in their small town. I’m glad I have several more novels in the series to get to soon.

Other reviews appear in Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reactions to Reading and The Crime Segments.

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

norwegian by nightNorwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Houghton Mufflin Harcourt, 2013
Source: library copy

Norwegian by Night is the most original crime novel I’ve read this year, and I really enjoyed it. I fell in love with Sheldon Horowitz, an 82 year old American Jew, ex-Marine who fought in the Korean War, who recently moved to Oslo after his wife’s death. His story is sad, funny, and heroic.

The criminal element of the story involves Sheldon hiding a young boy and his mother after his mother was in a violent and loud argument in the apartment upstairs from his, but the crime is not the only centerpiece of the novel.  It’s a novel about an old man who believes he’ll die soon and all of his memories (Sheldon, who suffers from dementia, feels very guilty about his son Saul’s death in the Vietnam War). It’s also a novel about wars and surviving after wars, and it’s a novel about being an outsider.

The characters feel very complete, even the younger characters like Sheldon’s granddaughter Rhea and the more minor police characters who track Sheldon and the young boy. The novel is an interesting mix of an adventure/escape story (Miller quotes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from time to time), memories of war and regrets, and crime. Sheldon is the most original character I’ve come across in my reading in a very long time.

Other positive reviews appear in Mrs. Peabody Investigates, Scandinavian Crime FictionRaven Crime Reads, and Bookreporter.

Death of the Demon by Anne Holt

death of the demonDeath of the Demon by Anne Holt, translated by Anne Bruce
Scribner, June 2013
Originally published as Demonens død, 1995
Hanne Wilhelmsen book 3

FTC Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

I’m a fan of the Hanne Wilhelmsen series by Anne Holt (I haven’t tried her other series yet), and Death of the Demon is a good installment in the series. It wasn’t as emotionally affecting as the last installment in the series, but I did enjoy it quite a bit.

This book finds Hanne moving ahead professionally and personally: she was recently promoted to chief inspector, a role to which she’s still growing accustomed. She enjoys the investigatory aspects of her jobs a bit too much, and, honestly, her work with her old friend Billy T., recently transferred from the drug interdiction team to the homicide section is one of the high points of the book for me. They have a good rapport.

The story revolves around the murder of the director of a foster home for older children owned by the Salvation Army in Oslo, Agnes Vestavik. This murder does not garner the same media heat as a double murder taking up most of the department’s resources, which is a nice switch from the previous book in the series. The investigation into Agnes’s home and work lives takes up the bulk of the book, and her story runs in tandem with the story of Olav, a twelve-year-old boy who had been living at the home for just a few weeks when Agnes is murdered. His story is told primarily in flashback by himself and by his mother, and it is quite affecting.

Affecting is a word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: Holt has great empathy for her characters: her heroes as well as her villains and their stories. They all have complicated lives, and she does that complication justice. The actual resolution of the mystery was not the strongest part of the story for me (it’s a sort of locked room situation), but that’s not to say the story was weak. I’m just comparing it to other crimes I’ve read about recently.

Other reviews appear in FictionFan’s Book Reviews.

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø


The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett
Originally published as Frelseren, 2005
Knopf, May 2013

FTC Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

I really like police procedurals, and I, among millions of others, eat up the Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbø. Harry is an interesting character, the plots are full of twists, and there’s a lot at stake for the characters. This is probably my favorite Harry Hole book of the four I’ve read so far: Harry isn’t in as horrible place as he’s been in in previous books, the plotting isn’t too convoluted, and the story doesn’t involve a serial killer. I recommend reading the three books that come right before The Redeemer (The Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Devil’s Star) to provide more background about Harry and what’s happening in the police department, but starting with The Redeemer won’t be too confusing to a reader who’s new to the series.

The Redeemer begins with a sober Harry Hole welcoming– if that’s the right word– a new boss, Gunnar Hagen, a former military man who replaces his protective boss Bjarne Møller. This particular investigation centers on the shooting of a Salvation Army member in a busy square in Oslo during a concert before Christmas. The story turns into a cat and mouse game between Harry and The Little Redeemer, a contract killer from the former Yugoslavia. Nesbø is good at switching points of view from the hunter to the hunted, and he’s very good at building suspense. He also spends plenty of time fleshing out the story of The Little Redeemer, which humanizes him.

Besides the suspense of the main criminal investigation, which brings Harry and his colleagues into the world of the Salvation Army’s leadership and the people they serve, the novel spends plenty of time on Harry’s personal life and life within the police department. There are threads that I’m sure will be played out in other novels as his situation in the department evolves.

This is a very strong book in the series, and I recommend it highly.

For other positive reviews of The Redeemer, see Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, and The Game’s Afoot.

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt

blessed are those who thirst

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst by Anne Holt, translated by Anne Bruce
Scribner, 2012
Originally published as Salige er de som tørster, 1994
Source: library

Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is a short novel in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series by Anne Holt, and I’m not sure how representative of the series it is. 1222, the first book to be translated into English, is a much later book in the series that’s essentially a locked-room mystery at a ski resort. The first book, Blind Goddess, is a police procedural centering on a murder investigation. Blessed Are Those Who Thirst, on the other hand, centers on a rape investigation as well as a batch of extremely bloody crime scenes where the victims are missing.

It’s a book that’s very amped up: it’s a very hot late spring in Oslo, the police are swamped with lots of violent cases, the bloody crime scenes are dubbed the Saturday night massacres within the department, and there is a very brutal rape of a medical student that is the focus of the novel.

I will admit that sometimes in the course of a police procedural I lose sight of the crime at the center of the novel and become more wrapped up in the chase for the perpetrator, but that didn’t happen while I read this novel. Holt has a lot of sympathy for Kristine, the rape victim, and her father, who are tempted to pursue justice outside the criminal justice system as they search for Kristine’s attacker. The book is a meditation on what justice is– and whether you can get justice by becoming a vigilante.

In terms of its place in the series, the novel advances police attorney Håkon Sand and detective Hanne Wilhelmsen’s personal stories a bit, but since it’s such a short story, it’s just a small bit of the story that will play out more in subsequent installments.

Finally, I want to comment on some of the flourishes that make this book stand out to me. Holt, a former minister of justice, knows bureaucracy. It’s nice to read a police procedural that acknowledges the extremely large workload of public servants and how things fall between the cracks in such a busy system. I don’t expect crime novels to be completely realistic (that wouldn’t be entertaining), but it’s nice to have a dose of reality from time to time. I also appreciated the information about the counsel for the victim and victim compensation systems in Norway, since they are unlike what exist in the U.S..

Sarah at Crimepieces and Norman at Crimescraps have also reviewed this book.

Blind Goddess by Anne Holt

blind goddessBlind Goddess by Anne Holt, translated by Tom Geddes
Scribner, 2012, originally published in Norwegian as Blind gudinne in 1993
Hanne Wilhelmsen book 1
Source: library

I read a lot of police procedurals, and it’s my favorite sub-genre of the last few years. Blind Goddess is a bit more than a police procedural: it follows both the police and the prosecution, much like the long-running TV series Law and Order. The main characters are Hanne Wilhelmsen, a detective with about ten years of experience and Håkon Sand, a police prosecutor who graduated at the bottom of his law school class but is nevertheless a dogged and effective prosecutor. The third main character is civil lawyer Karen Borg, an old friend of Sand’s who discovers a drug dealer whose murder sparks the investigation at the center of the novel.

My main impression of the book is that it feels busy: the plot that starts with the murder of a drug dealer becomes more gruesome and involves a broader conspiracy that will play out in subsequent books. I much preferred all the time Holt spent with the three main characters and their work and personal lives. I suspect it felt busy to me because Holt was laying the groundwork for plots that will cover the next novels in the series. That being said, I really like the main characters and I’m eager to read more.

A couple unrelated items in the book struck me: (1) is it really not a problem for a witness to a murder investigation to serve as a criminal defense lawyer in the case? I understand why Karen Borg was a defense lawyer, but I expected there to be more opposition to her serving as defense counsel; and (2) the reliance on fax machines was a blast from the recent past.

This is the second Hanne Wilhelmsen book I’ve read and the first one in the series. In the U.S., the locked-room mystery 1222, the eighth novel in the series, was published first, and unfortunately, it gives away a significant part of Hanne’s story. That being said, I’m eager to read books two through seven as they’re translated. Blessed Are Those Who Thirst has already been published, and Death of the Demon is due later this year.

Blind Goddess has also been reviewed by Maxine at Eurocrime and Norman at Crime Scraps

The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbø

devil's star

The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett
This edition: Harper Perennial, 2011
Source: library

Though I recently declared on this blog that I was through with serial killer novels, I quickly made an exception for The Devil’s Star, which is the third book in the Harry Hole series that I’ve read. Thankfully, the serial killer plot is not the only one in this book:  it also involves the end of Harry’s investigation into the murder of his colleague Ellen Gjelten.

Harry and his corrupt colleague Tom Waaler investigate a serial killer who strikes during the heat of summer when the police are very understaffed.  His victims are women who are found with a devil’s star (pentagram) drawn at the crime scene and with red devil’s star diamonds on their bodies.  I think my dislike for the plotline colored my view of the rest of the book, but I will say that Nesbø has an interesting twist on the serial killer story:  he’s a more developed character than in lots of other crime novels I’ve read.

I also appreciate that Nesbø makes Harry’s love interest, Rakel, a more interesting and conflicted character than lot of crime writers do.  Character wise, Nesbø offers lots of interesting tidbits about the police characters and the people Harry meets during the course of the investigation.  It makes the book longer than others, but the pacing felt pretty good to me.

The murder-of-Ellen-Gjelten plot was more interesting than the serial killer plot, but I don’t think it was the strongest out of the three books.  Nesbø does leave some unresolved threads to the story that I expect to see in other books in the series regarding corruption in the police department.  All in all, I’m glad I finished this set of books in the series, but this is not my favorite in the series.  That spot lies with Nemesis.

Other reviews of The Devil’s Star can be found by Jose Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot, Rob at The View from the Blue House and Norman at Eurocrime

I have also reviewed two previous books in the Harry Hole series

Nemesis by Jo Nesbø

Nemesis by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett

HarperCollins, 2009

Harry Hole book 4

source: I borrowed the e-book from the library.

Nemesis is the second Nesbø book I’ve read (and the second in the series to be translated into English but fourth overall in the series), and like The Redbreast, the second half is better than the first half.

Nemesis begins with a bank robbery that ends in the murder of bank employee Stine Grette.   The murder and robbery investigation is combined, and Hole and his new partner Beate Lønn conduct an investigation parallel to the robbery investigation led by Rune Ivarsson, who’s the latest in bosses to get on Harry’s nerves.  Harry has returned from Security Service post in The Redbreast to the Homicide division of Crime Squad.

Besides the bank robbery/murder investigation, there are a number of other plots in this fairly long thriller:  Harry is still investigating the murder of his former partner Ellen Gjelten (to be continued in the next book, The Devil’s Star), Harry becomes involved with an ex-girlfriend who dies apparently by suicide but Harry doesn’t remember much about their last night together, and, finally, Harry is still involved with his girlfriend from The Redbreast, Rakel, who is in Russia fighting for custody of her child.  The bank employee’s murder and Harry’s ex-girlfriend’s apparent suicide investigations run concurrently, and there are some similarities between the cases.  I can’t say more without divulging the twists of the plot, but the cases echo each other.

Thrown into the story are a number of commentaries about revenge, whether it be personal or institutional (Harry thinks prisons are monuments to revenge and retribution).  Harry’s friend the psychologist Aune adds his commentary about not only revenge as a motive but also talks to Harry about why he’s self-destructive and why he’s reacting to Ellen Gjelten’s murder the way he is more than a year after her death.  If Harry were just an alcoholic loner detective without good relationships with both Aune and his partner Lønn, I think this series would not be nearly as interesting.

Like The Redbreast, this book improved in the second half for me.  The first half I felt a bit at sea, much like Hole did himself in the twin investigations into the bank robbery and murder of Stine Grette and the murder of his police partner Ellen Gjelten.  Nesbø is so good at providing his villains with very twisty plans which makes for a very interesting investigation to follow.

I also reviewed The Redbreast, Harry Hole book 3.

Other reviews of Nemesis appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog and Eurocrime.