The Thirst by Jo Nesbo

4 Mins read

Translated by Neil Smith — The tagline says it all: Harry Hole is back! For those following the ten-book series featuring the dour, brilliant, and thoroughly scarred Norwegian detective, we were led to believe that Police might have been his last book. But now Harry is back, and tormented by a nightmare come true. The one criminal that got away from Hole has come out of hiding, and he’s thirsty for blood.

The book opens with an auspicious, typically Nordic noir scenario: a snowy white atmosphere ripe for blood splatter. But the white mist clears to reveal that we are actually in a Turkish sauna where a killer seethes with the thirst to kill. Nesbo is on his game and as playful as ever, as we then follow the three denizens of a bar in turn, and wonder who will be the victim – the local barfly, his creeped-out Tinder date, or the bar owner himself?

Meanwhile, Harry Hole is now retired from the police and is thriving in his marriage to Rakel. You will barely recognise the taciturn, reckless Harry of previous books. He is now content and having drawn out conversations about his feelings! Now professor at the police college, his old case files form the curriculum and draw big crowds, Harry’s stepson Oleg is a freshmen there and a quick study himself.

A brutal murder involving a medieval set of iron teeth and a lot of blood is what pulls Harry out of retirement. At first his answer is a flat-out no. But we know better. Harry is ambivalent about jumping back in the game and putting aside family for duty, but is perversely vindicated in his decision by the coercive Mikael Bellman, the ambitious chief who is grooming himself for justice minister. Bellman wants a quick victory under his belt and gives Harry a free hand to win one for the team, otherwise he will spoil Oleg’s future by revealing a criminal lapse from his past.

It dawns on Harry that the killer is the demon Valentin Gjertsen. It’s been three years, several plastic surgeries and a new fetish for blood, but it’s him, and he’s taunting Harry to come out and play. Soon enough the thirst meme extends from the hunted vampiric killer to the obsessed alcoholic hunter himself, as he closes in on the murderer whose machinations threaten everything he loves most. Fans may inwardly cheer that the angsty detective of previous books is now in the process of being revived, once again tempted by the bottle and once again obsessed with the hunt at the cost of a normal family life.

It is not until halfway through book, and two more murders later, that Hole finally assembles his team who are exhorted to think outside the box while gathered in the boiler room of police headquarters. There’s Stale Aune, expert psychologist and profiler, and personal friend; plus the eager young detective Anders Wyller. Bjorn Holm forensic investigator and ex-lover of Katrine Bratt, who has replaced Harry in Crime Squad, round out the team. Harry is also assisted by the analytical insight of vampirist scholar Hallstein Smith and blood expert Dr Steffens.

As the second and third victims fall prey to the murderer in excruciating detail, it becomes clear that while they seem to chosen randomly, they have the same MO and are linked by the dating app Tinder. The pressure to solve the case builds as the public’s fear, an aggressive press, and leaks about the case issuing from inside the crime squad create bad PR.

The Thirst has all the trademarks of classic Nesbo. It is expertly plotted with vividly drawn characters, frenetic police chases and philosophising villains, not to mention the usual bonus add-ons that are part and parcel of Nesbo’s thrillers. Esoteric science, ancient murder lore and indie music play their parts. The narrative tensions Nesbo creates are harnessed to Harry’s operating procedure, wherein he gets into the villain’s head so much that hunter and hunted mirror each other. More often than not, Harry falls in the process, only to pull himself out of the abyss in time to save the day.

But after 11 books Nesbo’s winning formula begins to feel a bit boilerplate, especially the obligatory scenario where storytelling villain fills in the helpless hero during his own drawn-out sacrifice as police verge on the wrong location. Nevertheless, Nesbo entertains in a unique way that makes you feel that you’ve been enriched while trying to solve the case. He is very good at creating complicated plots that are easy to follow, with several red herrings cleverly placed so that you’re guessing all the way and double-taking at certain characters who may or may not be as they appear.

This is not the best Harry Hole novel, and the motivations of the villain are far less convincing than those of the police characters, such as Katrine Bratt, who are better realised. One standout character is the mediocre, unfulfilled loser Truls Berntsen. Overall Nesbo fans who’ve thirsted for Harry Hole will be slaked. Expect to be thoroughly entertained, and if you can’t quite warm to the idea of a happy Harry Hole, don’t feel bad, you’re not alone.

Read our complete guide to the Harry Hole series here, or discover Iceland’s Detective Erlendur here. there’s also a 20th anniversary edition of the first Harry Hole novel, The Bat, which is worth checking out.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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