Best known for his Harry Hole series, Jo Nesbo is Scandinavia’s pre-eminent crime author at the moment and the last couple of years have seen him branching out in all sorts of ways. He’s working on his own rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and we understand the Harry Hole book The Snowman is being turned into a film. There are also two Blood on Snow books on the way. The Son, meanwhile, is a standalone crime epic set in Oslo with a similar feel to the Harry Hole series and plenty of literary ambition behind it. It has been optioned for cinema by Warner Brothers.
The Son of the title is Sonny Lofthus, a heroin addict who ended up in prison not long after both his parents died. His father, Ab, was a police detective who committed suicide. Everybody believed Ab to have been the mole who was tipping off Oslo’s criminal fraternity. Sonny is an enigma – despite the needle he’s physically strong, youthful and filled with inner calm. He listens to the confessions of the other prisoners like some sort of latter day apostle. He also confesses to crimes he hasn’t committed and in return the prison chaplain and deputy governor – both corrupt – facilitate his heroin-induced Nirvana.
They are in the thrall of Nestor, a Ukrainian gang lord who runs one of the biggest drugs, prostitution, extortion and human trafficking rings in Norway. If someone comes to Nestor with a problem and a pile of money, he’ll make both disappear. Sonny will be let out on day release, taken to a certain place and, for instance, the unfaithful wife of a jealous businessman will end up missing part of her skull. Evidence will be planted pointing to Sonny and he’ll take the fall for Nestor’s bagmen.
However, one day Sonny hears the confession of a criminal whose story exonerates Sonny’s father, Ab. Sonny hears how his father was murdered, and the suicide faked. With the help of other criminals, Sonny then escapes the maximum security prison he’s in and starts hunting down the guilty parties in all the crimes he’s confessed to. The men using him were behind his father’s death. For homicide detective Simon Kefas, it appears as though rich suburbanites, drug dealers, gangsters and dog breeders are being randomly murdered by some Norwegian holy avenger.
Kefas himself has links to our anti-hero. He was Ab’s best friend and he still feels a little guilty about the man’s apparent suicide. Kefas is also struggling with the fact that his gambling addiction saw him booted off the fraud squad when it got out of hand. Now he’s clean, he’s allowed to work homicides, but the shadow of his corruption follows him everywhere. Plus, his wife needs an expensive eye operation and he’s strapped for cash. His rookie partner Kari doesn’t know how far she can trust him, but learns from his excellent detective skills.
Captivating, original, and full of intriguing characters both good and bad, The Son breaks new ground for Jo Nesbo. He often uses side characters to convey bits of narrative – like little Markus from Sonny’s old neighbourhood who notices our hero coming and going, along with the police and gangsters who are hunting him, and Martha the lady who’s fallen for Sonny since he’s been out. We see things from the point of view of a random person riding an Oslo bus, and from criminals who’ve helped Sonny, and men about to die. It makes for superbly rich and varied storytelling.
However, the plot is very complex and has tendrils reaching back far into a clouded past. By the time Nestor is eventually dispatched it becomes clear that there’s another layer to the onion. Oslo’s crime scene, and many of its legitimate businesses too, are being run by a bigger criminal called The Twin. He’s Sonny’s real target, but has our cleaned-up addict got enough momentum and smarts to hit a man the police have never been able to even identify?
The complexity of the novel, with all its surprises and background detail, constricts the last third of the story somwhat. It feels too packed and too layered, with ideas and unlikely connections that make the pace rather choppy as we head towards an ending full of gunfire, blood, vengeance, agony, atonement and remorse. Overall, a wonderful read wrapped tightly in nuance, emotion and action. Different enough from the Harry Hole books to feel fresh and original, but with enough similarities for fans to feel more than satisfied.
The Son is released on 10 April.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars