The 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 
Length 10 hours 43 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 (chronologically) in the Harry Hole series
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