Review: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø

My final book for Amy’s Scandinavian Reading Challenge is Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast, set in Norway, which I had abandoned at around page 80 a year or so ago and fairly reluctantly started again only because you all told me to.

After nearly causing an international incident during a visit to Norway by the US President Detective Harry Hole is transferred within the police force and is charged with the surveillance of Nazi sympathisers. In what starts out as a barely related investigation he discovers that a very particular kind of weapon, one which would only be used for an assassination, is in the process of being smuggled into the country. What he has to uncover, before something disastrous happens, is what connection there is to a group of men who fought with the German occupying army during the second world war.

My initial lack of interest reading The Redbreast was due to its flashback passages to the battlefields of WW2. With regards to my entertainment war is one of two subjects* that is virtually guaranteed to make me zone out like a switch in my brain has been turned and all I hear and see is white noise (blame bad history teaches in my adolescence). However I made an extra effort to pay attention to The Redbreast this time and, though I still could have done without quite so many flashbacks, I did find the focus on the experiences of those who chose the wrong side during the war and were later treated as traitors quite fascinating and not something I’ve come across before (or at least not when I’ve been paying attention).

But the book has much besides its post-war musings to recommend it. First and foremost there is Harry Hole. 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. And perhaps give him a hug. It might give you some sense of just how much I adored him that I immediately purchased all the other books in which he appears even though I won’t read any of them for a while just so I could have them nearby.

There are other equally well-drawn characters in the book, though many of them are the kind of repugnant individuals whose eyes you want to scratch out (or is that just me?). My favourite one to hate was Bernt Brandhaug, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who likes to blackmail women, including Harry’s possible love interest, to sleep with him. Though despicable he is entirely too credible, as is the neo-Nazi youth Sverre Olsen, whose blaming of foreigners for the problems in his life rather than taking responsibility for his own inadequacies has a sadly familiar ring to it. This dark side of human nature is nicely balanced though by great characters like Harry’s colleagues Ellen, a feisty young woman who continues to help Harry after he is transferred to a different section, and Halvorsen a relatively new officer who is drawn into Harry’s investigation somewhat reluctantly.

The plot is very complicated, probably a little too much to be honest as there were one or two twists that didn’t seem to add much except confusion, but overall it hangs together well. The flashbacks are incorporated well (it’s not Nesbø’s fault I get bored at the first hint of wartime activity) and the mostly short chapters headed by dates help to provide much needed structure for the multi-threaded story which plays out over the course of many months. I’m sure this is all helped along by a great translation which makes the book flow very easily and naturally.

I’m still not convinced The Redbreast needed to be a hand-cramping 618 pages long, it was far too dense and detailed in parts, and there were some passages that felt muddled, like the incorporation of an enormously complicated psychological condition in an overly simplistic and not terribly realistic way. But overall these points were far outweighed by the excellent characters and well-structured narrative. I’m thrilled I have four more (so far) opportunities to catch up with Harry sometime soon.

The Redbreast has also been reviewed at Euro Crime (by Karen), Euro Crime (by Norman) and Material Witness

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4.5/5 (it’s probably a 4 but I’m giving Harry a half a point all of his own because I can)
Translator Don Bartlett
Publisher Vintage Books
ISBN 9780099478546
Length 618 pages
Format mass market paperback
Source My collection

In the never-ending confusion over publishing order of translated books The Redbreast is the first of the Harry Hole stories available in English (there are two earlier novels not yet available as far as I can tell) but it was not the first to be translated into English so you can’t get the series order by relying on publication dates. The listing on Fantastic Fiction appears to be in the correct series order.

* the other subject that puts me to sleep is gangsters/mafia.

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20 Responses to Review: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø

  1. Bernadette – I’m so glad you found it worth trying The Redbreast again. I agree with you that the character of Harry Hole is one of the most appealing parts of this series, and I’ll bet you’d have a really interesting time chatting with him :-).


  2. Ohhh, Bernadette, now I have to try Redbreast again, too. 😉


  3. Maxine says:

    Oh that is so sweet, buying the other books so you could have Harry close by – I know *just* what you mean (and agree, about the event you describe in the book).
    I do think Nesbo’s books are too long, he’s too in love with the grand over-the-top thriller finale, and though his plotting is fantastic, the “answers” are usually weak. Having said all of that, I do enjoy his books tremendously and am looking forward avidly to the next (The Leopard) early next year.
    I really like this review, Bernadette!


  4. Jose Ignacio says:

    Glad you like it Bernadette. I’m a great fun of Nesbo.


  5. Dorte H says:

    What a relief that you enjoyed it so much when you finally got past the war bits (as I am probably one of the people who pushed you into it). War plotlines are not my taste either, but it is as if no matter what Jo Nesbø writes, I can swallow it – especially if he puts Harry Hole in it. Nesbø is also one of the few crime writers my husband really appreciates.


  6. kathy durkin says:

    Well, Bernadette, you sold me! This is a great review and an honest one; you explained your reaction to the war parts, and a long and complicated plot, perhaps too dense and, in parts, muddled. But you certainly convinced me to read it, and I will do so, although the TBR pile, library reserves and Amazon shopping cart are all packed. So it’ll go on the list, perhaps moving up ahead of some other books. If I see it in the library, it’s getting checked out immediately and the days ahead will be spent reading it.


  7. Karen I did read a review somewhere in which the person was utterly scathing about Harry so he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I hope you like him (though if anyone gets to meet him it’s me, right?)

    Dorte there are a few people sighing in relief that I won’t be round to beat them up after they forced me to give the book a go 🙂

    Kathy I hope you can get your hands on it, being an older title the library might have it on the shelves.


  8. kathy durkin says:

    Yes, true, I should grab “The Redbreast,” but I just finished “Thursday Night Widows,” which was good and educational actually. Although I figured out what was going to happen due to the financial crisis, there was a twist.
    And now, what should happen when I went to the library on Monday to return two dvd’s? Sitting right in front of the check-out line was “Let the Dead Lie,” by Malle Nunn which I grabbed. Although my plan was to read her first book first given its rave reviews, I hadn’t seen that one. Now I’ve cracked the spine, read 30 pages and wonder why I have to go out of the house on Wednesday and do any errands or go to appointments at all. I’m already in a trance back in 1953 South Africa, but trepidatious about apartheid (that, along with WW2 and some other atrocities) are not my favorite backdrops, but this book will be fine. I can tell already. But, to top it off, the library got Zoe Ferraris’ new book for me (which I was reminded of at Mysteries in Paradise) and this would help me nearly complete my informal global challenge. So good on all fronts.


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  15. Richy says:


    I just finished reading The RedBreast and I need reminding, how on earth did Jo Nesbo come to calling his novel “The Redbreast” ?? It has been bugging me for a while!

    I do remember reading it in the novel but unsure which page! I know it was someone’s nick name! But why?

    Thanks so much for your help in advance, it is one of these little things that bugs me!


  16. Mabarlow says:

    Just finished The RedBreast found it a little wordy. But who got the death penalty “with no appeal”


    • Helen teague says:

      I have just finished this book but am frustrated by the ending ,I agree who did get the death penalty,wonder if I’ve missed something crucial in the plot.


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