Written by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett — If you’ve read Stieg Larsson’s dragon tattoo books and want more of that nordic noir then Jo Nesbo is just the thing, though you might find his work darker, and more dramatic. Phantom is his seventh novel about Oslo detective Harry Hole. Tall, thin, rugged and ravaged by a life of alcohol abuse, he’s a man who does what he has to, and he’s back in Oslo after three years in Hong Kong. His aim: to unsolve a crime.
Gusto Hanssen – a junkie and dealer – was shot dead and Oleg Fauke looks very guilty. Oleg’s the son of Rakel, the woman Harry loves but can’t be with. Harry’s guilt for leaving Oleg and Rakel behind sends him on a mission to get young man off the hook and out of the drugs scene. So Harry dives into Oslo’s seedy underworld. He flops in a cheap, no-questions-asked hotel and works his way through the strata of dealers and drug lords. A highly potent heroin substitute is being sold by pushers in Arsenal shirts and they’re run by a violent Russian gang headed by someone called Dubai.
The plot has plenty of interesting strands. A cokehead airline pilot is caught smuggling drugs out of Norway in his flightcase, and a bent narcotics detective wpies out evidence against the Russians at every turn. And, anyone who gets close to Dubai dies a brutal death. Yet helped by his old contacts in forensics eventually it seems Harry might be able to free Oleg. Trouble is, twitchy assassin Sergey is out to cut Harry’s throat. Every so often the phantom appears – an old Swedish priest called Cato pops up, steals a smoke and doles out cryptic advice. (Perhaps the inspiration was Cato who leaps out on Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films?)
Sex, politics and blackmail all come into it as Harry Hole moves forward. All kinds of weapons are used, from traditional Cossack knives to teargas grenades. In the same way that it’s a little unbelievable how Lisbeth Salander survives such greivous wounds in Stieg Larsson’s books, Harry Hole gets up and carries on being the dogged detective after every violent encounter.
Yet Nesbo’s narrative is diverse and compelling, so there’s no time to question it. The backstory is delivered via junkie Gusto Hanssen’s dying thoughts, and the main action comes through Harry. However the perspectives of nearly all the other characters are revealed too – the freaky assassin, corrupt detective, busted airline pilot and, on a few occasions, even the rat in the filthy drug den. While Nesbo can be slightly heavy handed, he really takes you inside the characters. Each is deeply damaged – Oleg wanted a dad, Gusto never knew his parents, and Harry bears the guilt of his alcoholic years disregarding those he loved.
The blackness of it all is perforated by incredible drama and some explosive action. And then there’s the brilliant ending. All at once these troubled souls rush to exit the Oslo drug world as though it’s a prison Nesbo built for them. The finale hits you in the face like a brick, leaving you dazed and wondering ‘did that really happen?’ Phantom is a fantastic piece of nordic noir.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars