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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Jo Nesbø

Translated by: Don Bartlett

Harper, 2009 (English edition)

Filed under: Mystery


Nemesis is the second installment in Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s detective series about the unfortunately named Harry Hole. I would describe it as a procedural novel, meaning the chief characteristic of the narrative is Nesbø’s tendency to exhaustively catalog each and every action taken and word spoken by Inspector Hole.

Nemesis is 500 pages long; it could easily be 300 pages, and we wouldn’t miss a thing. Much like Stieg Larsson, Nesbø suffers from a chronic lack of brevity and the result is a mildly compelling mystery wrapped in an extra few hundred pages of tortuous prose. Some questionable translating decisions exacerbate the careless feel of the book, and it’s ultimately not worth the read.

Read this book as a last resort on a cross-country flight. In any other situation, skip it.

Harry Hole, as difficult as his name is to take seriously, is Oslo’s best detective and a severe alcoholic. When the novel opens, he’s investigating a bank robbery during which a teller was brutally murdered. Then Hole goes and gets drunk. He blacks out and when he wakes up his phone is missing and the woman he’d gone to see is dead.

The mystery unwinds from there. Mostly, it unwinds in the form of excruciatingly overlong accounts of the mundane details of investigation. Sometimes (rarely) we get a good line, like this little gem:

‘For something called a life. Nothing that would interest you.’

Harry imitated a smile to show that he understood it was meant to be a witticism.

To get one of those, though, you have to wade through page after page of spiritless stuff like this:

‘She looks wonderful,’ Sandemann said. ‘Peaceful. Restful. Dignified. Are you a member of the family?’

‘Not exactly.’ Harry showed his police card in the hope that sincerity was reserved for closest family. It wasn’t.

‘Tragic that such a young life should pass on in this way.’ Sandemann smiled, pressing his palms together. The funeral director’s fingers were unusually thin and crooked.

‘I would like to have a look at the clothes the deceased was wearing when she was found,’ Harry said. ‘At the office they said you had brought them here.’

Sandemann nodded, fetched a white plastic bag and explained that he had done this in case parents or siblings turned up, and he could dispose of them. Harry searched in vain for pockets in the black dress.

This whole passage could be summed up like this: “Harry got Anna’s dress from the funeral director.” Even Harry himself is bored by all this bland dialogue.

In another scene, Hole finds out that a bottle with the murderer’s fingerprint on it was thrown in a Dumpster outside the bank. The Dumpster’s just been picked up, so they have to chase it down. Instead of simply telling us whether they get the bottle or not, Nesbø makes Hole get the number from the guy at 7-11, call the trash company, drive around looking for the truck it’s on, argue with his driver about which route to take, flag the truck down, get in the Dumpster, root around in the trash… One sentence turns into 3 and a half pages of bloat.

Drama, even in a mystery, does not come from revealing exactly how the hero chases down a Dumpster. Drama comes from the intentional actions of people and a detective who reads into those actions and deduces the motivation and identity of the culprit. It does not matter how Hole chases down the Dumpster, only whether or not he gets the fingerprint, and what he makes of it. We don’t need to see him canvassing potential witnesses or taking affidavits; we need to see him interrogating suspects, deciding who to trust, and using the results of those boring police procedures to tie everything together.

Harry Hole himself is a somewhat interesting character, partially because Nesbø doesn’t shy away from a pretty brutal portrayal of Harry’s alcoholism. But Harry can’t save this novel from everything else that goes wrong. The plot is decent but not stellar, partially because Nesbø throws in so many nonsensical plot twists in the third act that the ending feels more like Nesbø desperately trying to surprise you and less like a feasible solution to the mystery. But it’s clear by that point that Nesbø doesn’t much care.

The English translator doesn’t care either. For instance, the name “Harry Hole” is presumably (and grossly) translated, as is his title, “Inspector.” However, most proper names and titles are not translated. That means we get “Politiavdelingssjef Ivarsson” instead of Chief Johnson, and the cast list reads like a Norwegian phone book. I had a very tough time figuring out whether characters were male or female (Ola? Vigdis? Stine? Trond?—m, f, f, m), let alone remembering what jobs they had or who they were. And there’s no American localization, which also creates some easily avoidable problems.

All of this makes it clear that Nemesis is a product, and not a work of art. Nesbø’s a little Norwegian book factory and this was the ’03 model. If you liked Stieg Larsson’s books, you might like this one. Otherwise it’s got about the same specialness and originality as a tin of canned herring.

Similar reads: Stieg Larsson’s novels, including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Edgar impact: Simply too much bloat. It shouldn’t beat The Last Child.