It seems odd nowadays to think of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse as having broken the mould of the fictional detective, as a character who was socially dysfunctional, occasionally acted illegally and was not always infallible in his conclusions. Morse seems like a paragon of psychological and social stability compared to many of the more contemporary detectives from Rebus to Wallander, and so on. Jo Nesbo’s Oslo-based Harry Hole, who makes his third appearance in English in Nemesis is a case in point.
Hole is a recovering (and, more often than not, relapsing) alcoholic, cigarette-smoking maverickin the mould of this contemporary fictional detective. His life is not without hope in the shape of his Russian girlfriend, Rakael, and her young son, Oleg, who offer him a life of stability that he so craves. The reader’s personal interest in Harry is driven by these two opposing forces – Harry is a deeply moral character and, therefore, thoroughly likeable (although how likeable he would be in real life is open to question) but he seems incapable of reconciling his sense of duty to society (i.e. the demands of his job) and his sense of duty to those closest to him. I
n many ways Nemesis is something of an old-fashioned whodunnit. Nesbo offers us a series of seemingly logical solutions to the mystery, only to let each solution unravel to reveal a new one. In this way the book is a traditional page-turner (all 700 of them!) that keeps us guessing to the end. Of course, crime fiction often relies on dysfunctional personal relationships to drive the narrative, but what Nesbo does, in a way similar to Rankin and Mankell, is to use the form to make comment upon contemporary society. The dysfunctions of the individual are reflective of the dysfunctions of wider society.
What Jo Nesbo has also done – very cleverly, in my opinion – is to introduce a larger, overarching narrative that spans across the series of Harry Hole novels. Harry is haunted by the unsolved death of his former colleague Ellen. We know that the murderer is the corrupt ‘golden boy’ detective Tom Waaler, who is everything as a detective that Harry isn’t, his exact opposite in every way, and we know that Harry suspects Waaler, but the decisive evidence, that will finally bring Waaler down and allow Harry to triumph in their struggle of almost biblical proportions, is always just out of reach. No doubt this particular story will run and run for as long as Nesbo continues to write novels about Harry Hole, and I hope that will be for a long time yet. This is writing that is far more complex that it at first seems, extremely readable, combining old-fashioned structures and the steady hand of the popular novelist with more contemporary perspectives and sensibilities.
I should also say that this also works so well because of the excellent translation by Don Bartlett who captures the right mix of the literary and the vernacular – no mean feat when working across languages.