In some ways, the appeal of the Harry Hole stories is easy to pin down. Like so many modern detectives he’s got a few flaws. For a start, he’s a recovering alcoholic who often grabs a bottle when things get tough. Drunk or sober, he’s disorganised, and isn’t a particularly reliable boyfriend. But he displays many qualities too and never wants to let friends or colleagues down. He’s also an extremely determined detective who won’t let go and won’t stop until he gets his man. If it means sacrificing his job, or any hope of a stable personal life, so be it. Harry Hole detests corruption, and he’s no fan of inequality either.
Tall, lanky and with light blue eyes, readers have come to recognise his haphazard approach which often leaves him worn down, at his wit’s end, and in need of a bath. Yet behind that there’s a remarkable ability to multi-task as he negotiates the various players, leads, and far-flung locations in a case. Sometimes he juggles various aspects of a case alongside a love interest, and his personal and professional lives are mangled together. In the early books, he’s protected by his friend and superior in the Oslo police, Bjarne Møller, despite his madcap investigative style. But later on he comes into a lot of conflict with his boss.
Maybe the best thing about reading a Harry Hole novel is Jo Nesbo’s writing (pictured above). At his most fluent, the narrative takes on a dreamlike quality as Hole rushes through the investigation blurring fact and feeling. It becomes like a stream of consciousness and Hole seems to glide through life, while at the same time catching all of its sharp edges. He may or may not feel the pain, but eventually he comes up with the information required to solve a case.
Nesbo plays with interesting aspects of history – Norway’s, Australia’s, Yugoslavia’s, even that of the gypsies – to give his stories greater depth and plenty of texture. However, he’s also a master of structured plotting and loves to engineer detailed set-pieces. There’s a theatre scene in The Bat that will have you holding your head in wonder, as someone in the story loses theirs. And, the concluding chapters of The Devil’s Star, Redeemer and Phantom will leave you stunned. Nesbo isn’t the rising star of Scandinavian crime fiction any longer: he has the leading role!
Because the series has been released in a fractured sequence in English, and because a great many readers now believe that Harry Hole is dead, we decided to put together a guide to this quintessential Nordic noir character and the books he appears in. We hope you enjoy it – do add your own comments below.
(Flaggermusmannen – 1997)
The series starts in the most un-Nordic location possible as Harry Hole lands in Sydney, Australia. He’s there at the request of the Australian police, who are investigating the murder of Norwegian TV presenter Inger Holter. Her body, beaten and raped, has been recovered from the sea beneath a cliff. They don’t really want Hole’s help. His presence is merely to allay worries that Scandinavian tourism will dry up with the negative press. Working with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal member of the Sydney homicide team, Hole wades right in, making friends and enemies in the Bohemian quarter of Sydney where Inger worked. He and Kensington chase down some leads that take them into the Outback looking for a drug dealer, and we get a perspective on the Aboriginal experience. Perhaps because of its non-Norwegian setting, The Bat was only translated in October 2012, after seven other Harry Hole thrillers had already appeared in English. Read our review here.
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(Kakerlakkene – 1998)
Cockroaches was eventually translated into English in November 2012. Hole has been drinking and trying to deal with what happened in Sydney, and he’s also angry about the rape of his sister, when his boss Bjarne Møller scrapes him off a barstool and puts him on the next plane to Bangkok. The Norwegian ambassador there has been murdered in compromising circumstances – they found him lying face down in a brothel with a knife in his back. Strangely, the old Buddhist dagger has reindeer oil on it. Partnered with an American cop who works for the Bangkok police, Liz Crumley, Harry Hole investigates both Norwegian expats and some very dangerous locals to whom the ambassador owed money. The novel works at a slightly more sedate and thoughtful pace than some of the others in the series, though the killer does eventually manage to drag Hole down into the dark depths. The ending is frentic, angry, crazy. Cockroaches was originally published in Norway in 1998.
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(Rødstrupe – 2000)
For English readers, The Redbreast is the second de facto Harry Hole novel. Appearing in 2006, it’s the first in Nesbo’s Oslo Trilogy, but came out a year after the third in the trilogy, The Devil’s Star. Confusing, huh? The Redbreast opens with Hole on a routine stake-out during which he makes a split-second decision about a possible sniper – one which ends in disaster. So he’s ‘promoted’ to a quieter department, and becomes involved in a murder case which has roots 60 years earlier in World War II. The historical era of Norwegian-Nazi collaboration serves as both the backdrop for the killer’s motivations and the locus for the present investigation. Using frequent flashbacks, Nesbo deftly unravels past and present simultaneously. This case involves old diaries, a sniper rifle, a few Neo-Nazis, and enough red herrings to leave you guessing til the end.
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(Sorgenfri – 2002)
Book two in the Oslo Trilogy takes place two years after The Redbreast and Hole is called to the scene of a bank robbery that’s gone south. The culprit has gunned down a bank teller in cold blood and all Hole has to go on is some grainy CCTV footage. Here Nesbo introduces Beate Lønn, a shy but brilliant member of the Robbery Unit who has a rare genetic condition: she never forgets a face. While scrutinising the video alongside Harry, she slowly comes out of her shell. Harry’s new girlfriend Rakel is in Russia seeking custody of her son, and Hole gets a call from an old girlfriend. After a night-cap and night of passion, he can’t remember what happened or even how he got home. However, his old flame is found with a bullet through her head. As with other books in the series, he’s being played by a nemesis – maybe it’s Detective Waaler. Nesbo also brings in a gypsy character along with lots of background on Romany gypsies.
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The Devil’s Star
(Marekors – 2003)
Though it was the fifth Harry Hole book for Norwegian readers, The Devil’s Star was the first one translated for the English-speaking world. It’s a good introduction to the character and to Nesbo’s well-paced, tightly structured style, not to mention his dark sense of humour and taste for the outrageous. Hole and his team are investigating an unusual murder – the victim is missing a finger and under the eyelid they find a tiny, star-shaped red diamond. As new victims begin to surface, each with the same calling card, but a different digit missing, Hole is forced to team up with Waaler, whom he suspects is guilty of a long list of crimes – murdering Hole’s partner, running covert arms, and far-reaching corruption. Hole is off the wagon, working in an alcohol-fueled daze and clinging to Rakel and her son Oleg, with whom he has formed a bond. Watch for the pulse-pounding finale – another fine set-piece from Nesbo.
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(Frelseren – 2005)
This one first appeared in Norwegian in 2005, but was published in English in 2009. Work has become a bit of a battlefield for Harry Hole with Bjarne Møller’s retirement at the end of the previous book – he doesn’t get along well with his new senior inspector. You’ll have noticed that Nesbo likes to have tendrils of his plotlines reaching into the past and The Redeemer begins with the rape of a teenage girl back in 1991, at a Salvation Army youth camp. She keeps quiet about it, not wanting to damage her father’s reputation as he’s high up in the organisation. Further flashbacks in the book take us to the break-up of Yugoslavia, with Serb militias going on a violent rampage in Vukovar. A Croat survivor of this, now a hitman, turns up in Oslo and kills a Salvation Army officer. Harry Hole, Jack Halvorsen and Beate Lønn must investigate the case. At this stage Rakel has left him and has a new boyfriend. Nesbo concludes the book with Harry Hole facing two killers and a moral conundrum.
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Snømannen – 2007
Creepier than ever before, this Harry Hole novel has quite a horror feel to it – the killer takes a woman and leaves behind a snowman. A snowman with a hideous grin, the victim’s scarf around its neck, and pebble eyes that stare at her little boy who’s waiting for her inside the house. Another woman disappears and Harry Hole works alongside Katrine Bratt, a detective who has a complex past, just like him. The plot is complex too and sees them connecting other missing persons cases to the snowman murders. Eventually, an all-too-perfect television host who has interviewed Harry Hole becomes a chief suspect. When it comes down to it the killer is closer to Hole, and ex-girlfriend Rakel, than anyone at first realised and our hero finds himself in a race against time to save her. In one action scene, Hole loses the tip of one of his fingers. In 2017, a much-anticipated film version was released with Tomas Alfredson directing, and Michael Fassbender in the role of Harry Hole. (See below.)
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(Panserhjerte – 2009)
Harry Hole has been living in Hong Kong but returns to Norway at the request of Kaja Solness, a Crime Squad officer back in Oslo. It’s believed a serial killer is on the loose and when a female MP is killed, Hole teams up with the police to help solve the murder. All three victims are connected by the same ski lodge and the police attempt to use another member as bait for the killer. It goes wrong, however, and the killer escapes to the Congo. Hole and Solness follow and face grave dangers in Africa where they are captured, and the action takes them to the very edge of a volcano. The book contains many personal reflections for Harry Hole. During the story his father passes away, he meets once again with The Snowman of the previous novel, and seems to affirm that Rakel is the one love of his life.
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(Gjenferd – 2011)
Translated into English in 2012, Phantom sees Harry Hole returning to Oslo after three years in Hong Kong. His aim is to try and exonerate Oleg, ex-flame Rakel’s son, a boy to whom Harry Hole has been a father figure on and off during the series. Now an unruly teenager, Oleg has been living in a squat and is accused of killing a junkie. As the case unfolds it looks like Hole can get Oleg off the hook, but the boy has been dealing drugs. This brings Hole into contact with an organised, determined and innovative Russian outfit which is selling a powerful heroin substitute and seems to have influence within the police force. A sub-plot involves a drug-smuggling airline pilot. Every so often, Hole encounters an elderly man who drifts onto the scene and offers him help and advice – what does this strange phantom character know about Oleg? We’ve talked about Nesbo’s set-pieces before but Phantom’s ending really hits you like a brick in the face. It’s had many a reader typing ‘is Harry Hole dead?’ into Google. Read our review here.
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Politi – 2013
In this novel, you get to find out exactly what happened to Harry Hole after Phantom’s dramatic ending. It opens with a patient in hospital in a coma. He’s gradually recovering but we don’t know who he is. Meanwhile, Gunnar Hagen and his team of investigators are baffled by a series of murders that is taking place in Oslo. Someone is luring members of the force to the scenes of unsolved crimes, and then killing them in the same manner as the victim of the original crime. Both the Crime Squad and new chief of police Mikael Bellman seem out of their depth – but if Hole joins the investigation perhaps there will be a breakthrough. This novel sees some real changes in Hole and his motivations, and also looks closely at the meaning of justice. When he eventually joins the hunt for the killer there are two questions. Firstly, how will they catch this brutal assassin? Second, how will diving into a gritty case affect both Hole and his relationships with Rakel and Oleg? You can read our review of Police here.
(Tørst – 2017)
When we interviewed Jo Nesbo, he was ambivalent about whether or not there would be another Harry Hole novel after Police, but we had a sneaky suspicion that the Oslo detective would be back and The Thirst doesn’t disappoint. You may have noticed some loose ends left in the cop killer case Hole worked on in Police. After three years, the escaped rapist and murderer who was briefly a suspect in that case has re-emerged with a tweaked MO which involves prosthetic metal teeth, plenty of blood, and the dating app Tinder to target his prey. Katrine Bratt now heads up Crime Squad, but Hole is co-opted from his teaching role at the police college to help catch the killer. It is fascinating how the murderer’s thirst for blood seems to be paralleled by Harry Hole’s thirst for Jim Beam as the case gets more stressful, and our hero once again lays it all on the line to catch him. Big plot twists, big diversions, big set-piece ending. And… room for a sequel. Read our full review here.
Harry Hole fans had been looking forward to the film adaptation of The Snowman for several years before it finally arrived in November 2017. It was directed by the Swede Tomas Alfredson, who previously made the excellent Let the Right One In, an unusual vampire movie that was film steeped in atmosphere, tension and emotion. The ideal choice for a mystery-horror, then? Unfortunately, while there is little wrong with the atmosphere in The Snowman, per se, the adaptation itself falls short.The culprit is essentially doing the same things – removing women’s heads and leaving Snowmen behind – but the surrounding story alterations don’t seem to work. The need to change the complex plot in order to keep it relatable is understandable, however this hasn’t been achieved and while fans may or may not like the alterations, if you haven’t read the book you might find the story hard to follow anyhow.
The quiet style of the director perhaps has too much bearing on Harry Hole’s character, played by Michael Fassbender, who seems a little too maudlin and self pitying. Katrine Bratt is played by Rebecca Ferguson and is both driven and troubled just like Harry. As Oslo bids for some kind of winter games event, there’s a side plot involving corruption in the construction industry, which acts as a red herring. Soon, the creepiness of the Snowman’s MO wears off and after that the film never really gets out of third gear. The one truly interesting aspect of it, however, is Val Kilmer’s performance as Bratt’s alcoholic father – a cop driven mad by the killer who got away. If the Harry Hole character in the film had a bit more of that crazy schizzle it would be a lot more watchable.
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Thank you to Jeremy Megraw for his help with this article. For more Norwegian crime fiction, see our guide to Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series here.