Review: THE BAT by Jo Nesbø

TheBatNesboAudioThe latest of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels to be translated into English is the first one ever released in Norwegian, back in the late 90’s. At least for me this is one of the few occasions where I think translating out of order was probably the right decision. Even setting aside the fact I didn’t find it a great book I don’t think it’s a particularly good representation of what the series would eventually become and with it being set outside Norway, a strange choice for a first book in a series, it wouldn’t exactly have fitted in with the rest of the ‘cold Scandi crime’. Personally I doubt I’ve bothered reading any more if this had been my first exposure to the Nesbø/Hole phenomenon.

The book sees Harry Hole, a disgraced Norwegian policeman, sent to Australia to be a kind of liaison as Sydney police investigate the death of a Norwegian girl. It is a sort of test to see if Harry can be fully trusted again. But, as those who have read any of Harry’s later adventures might expect, the path to even a semblance of redemption is a bumpy one to say the least. As far as providing many of the details which explain why Harry is the way he is in later novels THE BAT does a good job and the last third of the book was a reasonably fast-paced kind of yarn. The rest of the book didn’t really do it for me.

Most of the reason is length. The book rambles, endlessly, and often in a terribly earnest, almost preachy kind of way. I am always annoyed at being preached at but I am particularly peeved when preached at about complex issues such as my country’s handling of indigenous issues by someone who spent 5 weeks here before writing a book. In his trek along the east coast of Australia Harry meets an assortment of fringe-dwellers …Aboriginal boxing troop members, transvestite clowns, junkie cops, sky-diving homeless people, kind-hearted prostitutes and the like…who are all, rather unbelievably, as articulate as professors when they share their life-lessons thinly disguised as amusing anecdotes. Along with a few random and unrelated Dreaming stories these are inserted fairly clunkily into the book with the result that I felt like I read a combination whodunnit / high school social studies primer. I suspect most of this content would have appealed far more to Nesbo’s home audience than it did to me. But even if I hadn’t been mentally grizzling “but that wouldn’t happen like that” I’d still have been rolling my eyes at the rambling in this book. It needed a lot tighter editing.

When I read the next book in this series, THE REDBREAST, a couple of years ago I said of Harry

He is funny, smart, occasionally insolent, socially inept and has a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve. At first I liked him but his realistic and truly touching reaction to a particularly horrible event about half-way through the story made me love him to bits. I rarely think about wanting to meet fictional people (because, ya know, it’s impossible) but I’d happily engage in a bit of black magic if it meant I could have a chat with Harry.

I don’t feel nearly so enamoured of him having read this instalment of the series. I’m not sure exactly why as he did exhibit some of those characteristics I identified, though he wasn’t particularly funny or smart in THE BAT. But it was more than that…something to do with the inevitability of his new fall from grace (i.e. the one that happens in this book not the one that happened in his back story)…like he wasn’t even trying to fight it. And his investigative skills basically boiled down to a series of guesses, all but the last of which was wrong with awful, even fatal, consequences so I couldn’t really respect him as a policeman. The rest of the (many, many) people populating this story were caricatures…none of them terribly interesting.

To top it all off I found the ending preposterously unbelievable. If for no other reason than by that point any self-respecting policeman would surely have told the towering blonde foreigner (who by that time was sozzled as well) to take his theories, which up to that point had all been disastrously wrong, and sod off which would have spared at least one innocent life. But the police in this book continue to politely sit back and wait for Harry’s next ludicrous theory before doing anything that vaguely resembles their job.

Completists will presumably want to read this to gain an understanding of Harry’s past but I wouldn’t recommend it to others, especially not those who have yet to embark on the Harry Hole adventure. It doesn’t give you much of an idea of what future books will be like and it might put you off all together. Given the series had a legion of fans long before this book’s release it is obviously entirely possible to enjoy the series without having read this instalment. If you are going to read it I’d highly recommend the audio version I listened to as Seán Barrett is a great narrator; indeed one of my favourites (and for the linguistically challenged like myself you’ll finally learn how to properly pronounce Harry’s surname).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Seán Barrett
Translator Don Bartlett
Publisher Random House Audio [2012]
ASIN B009L9ES22
Length 10 hours 43 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 (chronologically) in the Harry Hole series

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16 thoughts on “Review: THE BAT by Jo Nesbø

  1. Bernadette – I am sorry to hear you weren’t so taken by this one. I wonder if maybe it took a while for Harry to become a good character? Sometimes that just doesn’t happen right off. And I do agree about the length of more than one of the Harry Hole books.

  2. Spot on Bernadette! Especially from the Australian point of view. Having read this book I went in search of what Jo Nesbo thinks of it now, expecting that he’d be faintly embarrassed by his first and very quickly written book. But he likes it still, although acknowledging that he learnt much in writing it. Personally, I would be happier just starting the series with massively impressive The Redbreast and following Harry Hole from there. However, I’ll probably cave in and read The Cockroach when it comes out later this year. The saving grace is Don Bartlett’s translations.

    • He likes it still huh? Glad someone does. Perhaps he has to say that – given how much money was to be made out if in translation – money for jam really at this point – it would have been a bit of a hard sell for him to come out and say it was crap and then expect to sell by the truckload in English markets :)

      If you do cave in don’t say you weren’t warned :)

      • You are right, of course, how can he say anything but that he still likes it. It is also a salutory example of that good advice “write what you know best”, which he did so well when he got to Redbreast. But I have this vision in my mind’s eye of Jo Nesbo holed (sorry :-) ) up in some Sydney apartment with every surface strewn with Tourist Bureau information leaflets and brochures, as he tries to work every one of them into the narrative …

  3. Your review of “The Bat” is spot on. I found myself nodding agreement right through it. Pity, because I often find an author’s first book of a series to be the best one.

    If I were Australian, I’d get totally irritated with the “Dreaming stories” which are so much better told by Australian authors. Also, the description of multi-cultural Australia seemed simplistic. I think Jo Nesbo should have left those too aspects well alone.

    • I often find the first book to be the best too lisa – but now am wondering if it’s more of a ‘first book I read’ thing – as I did love The Redbreast which was the first one of these I read – I do tend to read series in order when I can so usually the first book I read and the first book by the author is the same thing.

  4. I liked this one more than you Bernadette although I agree that the aboriginal passages were very preachy. I liked the sober Harry Hole, so different from later books.

  5. I wasn’t sure about whether to read this one or not. Perhaps I will leave it unread. I liked Nemesis from page one when I got hooked, and my life put on hold until I was finished. I plan t read some others though by Nesbo, as somehow he draws me in right away and I can’t stop reading. But I’ll skip this one.

  6. My first Harry Hole was The Leopard, not his best they say, therefore I wasn’t that enamoured with him either. I recently read and review The Hour of Wolf by Hakan Nesser, and like you I didn’t like that the police cracked their case by “guessing”, if that’s the way crime fiction writers are taking I’m not reading it. I have Redbreast with me, so I will have a go and see if I change my view about Harry Hole.

  7. I’ve only read one Nesbo book – The Snowman. I have The Bat on my ereader right now, borrowed from my library, and I’d been feeling a little sad because I’d had a hold for it for a while and it came at a most inopportune time, with me in the midst of deadlines with no time to read it. But I think I’ll let it expire without too much worry and put a hold on The Redbreast instead.

  8. Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. The evidence unpeels like an onion but at roller coaster speed. It’s riveting. Harry Hole explains his reasoning throughout, so his conclusions seem logical, not guesswork.

  9. I read that WSJ article, and sysipthame with the dilemma on both sides how to market fiction in the US which is not written by a US author (always a tough one! especially for translated); with how to avoid the author concerned being stereotyped. I can understand why the publisher wants to associate a Scandinavian crime author with S Larsson given the latter’s phenomenal success in the US when you compare earlier, better (?) authors such as Asa Larsson, Karin Altvegen etc, they have not done so well on their own . But of course, as you say, Nesbo is no more like Stieg Larsson than Michael Connelly or Robert Crais are.Tough one. Jo Nesbo is not my favourite crime fiction author though I think his character of Harry Hole is superb and he’s very good on location and atmosphere. I think his plots are overblown and don’t stand up (though they are amazingly and fascinatingly inticrate) and and I hate the fact that he likes to dwell on the details of ritualised violence and torture.

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