Jo Nesbø: Introducing Norwegian Policeman Harry Hole

Norwegian Redbreast, Erithacus Rubecula

The migrating Redbreast is a harbinger of spring in Oslo; seeing one in November is unusual. In the opening scene of the Jo Nesbø’s police thriller Redbreast, two bored police officers are watching an overwintering Robin Redbreast swoop down to land on the roof of a tollbooth. The officers are waiting for President Clinton’s motorcade to pass through the empty toll station.

The 1999 visit of the US President for a Middle Eastern Peace Conference with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak is the historical setting of this tense police novel.

Detectives Harry Hole and Ellen Gjelten are members of the Norwegian Special Crime Unit. Usually, they are investigating violent crimes, but today they have been assigned to the president’s security detail. This is boring duty for the detectives; it is usually assigned to other units.

The detectives look up as the first black SUV of the motorcade comes into sight on the E6 connecting Gardermoen Airport to Oslo. They don’t know it yet, but the officers are about to go into action.

Ellen gives the Alnabru toll barrier a final sweep with her binoculars, and spots a glint of metal—Harry immediately grabs the police radio microphone and says:

‘There’s someone in the third booth from the left. Can anyone identify this individual?’ The radio answered with a crackling silence as Ellen’s gaze raced from one booth to the next in the row. There! She saw a man’s back behind the brown glass of the box – only forty or fifty meters away. The silhouette of the figure was clear in the light from behind, as was the short barrel with the sights protruding over his shoulder. ‘Weapon!’ she shouted. ‘He’s got a machine gun.’
—The Redbreast (p. 10). Kindle Edition.

[Jumping from the parked police vehicle:]

“Harry started to run towards the toll booth and the back of the man dressed in a suit. From the barrel, Harry guessed the gun was an Uzi. The raw early morning air smarted in his lungs.

“The motorcade was coming from directly behind the toll booth, and it was coming fast. In a couple of seconds the [president’s] Cadillac would be level with the booths. From the corner of his left eye he noticed a movement, a little bird taking off from the roof.

Whether to take the risk or not . . . the eternal dilemma. He thought about the low neck on the vest, lowered the revolver half an inch. The roar of the motorcycles was deafening.”
–The Redbreast (pp. 11-12). Kindle Edition.

Harry takes the risk, shoots the armed man dead, and Hole is in deep trouble with both the Norwegian police and the US Secret Service.

It’s not the first time Detective Hole (pronounced HEU-leh in Norwegian) has been in trouble—trouble follows him wherever he goes. Harry was due for severe punishment, but in this case it was in the national interest to hush up the incident. So Hole was promoted to Inspector and transferred to a new job investigating the small but growing Norwegian Neo-Nazi movement.

Neo-Nazism in Europe borrows elements from the WW II Nazi doctrine, including militant nationalism, fascism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism. White nationalists and skinheads are often sympathetic to neo-Nazism. The roots of the movement go back to WWII.

Nesbø uses flashback to introduce the Neo-Nazi theme to the reader In 1941, Norway is under German occupation and some Norwegians are collaborating with the Nazis. Many collaborators were enrolled in the Norwegian units of the German Army and sent to the Russian front.

Gudbrand is a typical collaborator who has been trained as an assassin:

“The flares lit up the grey night sky, making it resemble a filthy top canvas cast over the drab, bare landscape surrounding them on all sides. Perhaps the Russians had launched an offensive, perhaps it was a bluff; you never really knew until it was over. Gudbrand was lying on the edge of the trench with both legs drawn up beneath him, holding his gun with both hands and listening to the distant hollow booms as he watched the flares go down. He knew he shouldn’t watch the flares. You would become night-blind and unable to see the Russian snipers wriggling out in the snow in no man’s land. But he couldn’t see them anyway, had never seen a single one; he just shot on command. As he was doing now.
–The Redbreast (p. 53). UK. Kindle Edition.

After the war, the Norwegian government hunted collaborators and put them on trial, but some collaborators escaped detection and they helped start the Neo-Nazi movement.

In Norway today, Neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists are few in number and, for the most part, uncoördinated, but they can be extremely dangerous.

Today, terrorism and vengeance is a threat everywhere. Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian right-wing extremist now on trial in Oslo, first set off a car-bomb in Oslo and went to island of Utøya where he murdered young members of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) at their summer camp. It is frightening to think that one person, acting alone, but using modern weaponry, can do so much harm.

Harry’s superiors think that the new assignment will keep Harry far away from Oslo, and hopefully out of the news. But, when Harry discovers some mysterious large-bore rifle casings in the woods, he uncovers a sinister plot to assassinate a member of the Royal Family during the upcoming 17 May Festival (called in Norwegian: Syttende Mai, pronounced Soot-n-duh My).

Discovering the source of the unusual gun casings and unraveling the assassination plot will bring Harry right back to Oslo, but will he be in time to defend the Royal Family?

This is a good read, full of action and the climax is an exciting race against time. Be prepared for violence, unusual murder techniques and the usual gore found in Scandinavian adventure fiction.

Redbreast is the US and UK introduction to Jo Nesbø’s series of books featuring the Norwegian Detective Hole. The previous two novels (The Bat Man, The Cockroaches) in the series have not been translated.

Nesbø is a great success in Norway as a writer and rock star (he is the main vocalist and songwriter for the Norwegian rock band Di Derre). On a recent book tour in the US, he stopped off at Murder By The Book in Portland where he explained how to pronounce his name:

The first thing Jo Nesbo said when he arrived at the store for his signing was, “Call me Joe.” Huh? It appears his name is pronounced (by Norwegians) “Hyew Nesbew,” said with a little moue for the “ew” sounds, but the English-speaking world (primarily Britain) insists on calling him Joe. Jo is an easy-going guy, we guess, so the willow bent with the wind and Hyew became Joe.
Murder By The Book, 2012

The books in the series are:

  • 1997 – The Bat Man (not in US)
  • 1998 – The Cockroaches (not in US)
  • 2000 – The Redbreast (2006)
  • 2002 – Nemesis (2008)
  • 2003 – The Devil’s Star (2005)
  • 2005 – The Redeemer (2009)
  • 2007 – The Snowman (2010)
  • 2009 – The Leopard (2011) (awaiting translation)
  • 2011 – Phantom (2012)

The novels: The Bat Man and The Cockroaches have not been translated because their stories are presented in other books of the series. The lawyer nicknamed Bat Man appears in The Redbreast:

‘In neo-Nazi circles they call him Batman.’ ‘Got it. Baseball bat.’ ‘Not the Nazi – the lawyer.’
—The Redbreast (p. 40). UK. Kindle Edition.

This is a good series for those who like hard-nosed police stories. It’s very popular in Norway; I’m looking forward to reading them all. The Snowman will be filmed in 2012 or 2013.

Week 17-2012 The Redbreast, Jo Nesbø (Tr. Don Bartlett, 2006).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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