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Cockroaches-2Written by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett — Although Cockroaches is the latest Harry Hole book from Jo Nesbo to appear in English, it was actually the second one written in the original Norwegian. It fits in between The Bat and The Redbreast, if you’re a stickler for reading crime books in their intended order. (To find out more about the entire Harry Hole series, click here.) So, here we meet a younger Harry Hole, not quite so ravaged by his battles with demented killers as in later books, but nonetheless haunted by his hunt for a serial killer in The Bat, and by the fact that his Down Syndrome sister was raped – the perpetrator never caught.

Back in Norway – and bitter – he’s been working much more ordinary cases by day, and hitting the dive bars at night. At least it’s only beer he’s been gulping back. At short notice, his police boss Bjarne Møller hauls him in and demands that he clean up and get on a plane to Bangkok. One long-haul flight later and he’s sniffing traffic fumes and rotting fruit in the ladyboy capital of the world, investigating the murder of the Norwegian ambassador.

The man’s body was found by a prostitute, in a brothel, with an ornate Burmese knife protruding from his back. The Norwegian Foreign Office hopes Hole will help the Thai police swiftly solve this embarrassing case. To his surprise, he ends up working with Liz Crumley, an American detective on the Thai force who is completely bald. Most of their Thai witnesses – the prostitute, the motel owner and the ambassador’s driver – are keeping it zipped. It’s all about saving face in Asia. But forensics reveals a very Norwegian substance on the knife: reindeer oil! This points them towards the Norwegian expat community in Bangkok.

Hole visits the embassy and attends the ambassador’s wake, digging up the dark secrets of his countrymen abroad. The dead man’s wife is perpetually drunk, putting a strain on his interview with her, and his willpower. He’s been off the sauce since arriving in Bangkok. The ambassador’s beguiling teenage daughter, Runa, flits in and out of the story. It emerges that a currency investor was having an affair with the wife, and that Runa was due to inherit the family fortune. A paedophile angle comes to the fore when Hole learns of the ambassador’s relationship with a reclusive construction magnate who has a taste for boys. And let’s not forget the tough Korean War vet who’s attached to the Norwegian embassy, but whose actual role isn’t clear.

With such an odd cast of expatriates, Cockroaches will remind you of an Agatha Christie story, however Miss Marple never went up against a gargantuan Chinese hitman. Woo’s MO is to throw people out of windows, which Hole discovers the hard way. Who’s Woo working for? As he gets closer to the killer, the Foreign Office draws a line under his assignment and the Thai police chief concurs. Hole and Crumley have just a few days left to nail the case. Then, unexpectedly Runa, is kidnapped and the book accelerates towards a furious and bloody climax, with both detectives putting their lives on the line.

Cockroaches is another captivating mystery by Jo Nesbo. Harry Hole seems more sedate and rational than in some novels in the series, where often bounces around like a pinball driven by a mixture of emotion, intuition, self-loathing and booze. He can’t help losing his temper when he comes across child porn, and gets very protective of Runa and Crumley, but he never quite loses his grip. That dreamlike randomness seen in The Bat, The Snowman and Phantom – certainly a quality of Nesbo’s writing – is lacking somewhat in Cockroaches. Here, we see a different side to the detective. He’s rational, introspective and largely in control, storing up his rage against the brutality and greed he uncovers until the very end. And then Harry Hole’s passion for justice bubbles over as he throws all his anger at the culprit.

Satisfying. Different. A pleasure to read. Another crime fiction hit from Jo Nesbo. The hardback would make a great Christmas present for somebody, by the way.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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