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Written by Jo Nesbo, translated by Neil Smith — Wallander, Salander and Beck are characters who sit at the top table of Scandinavian crime fiction, and dining with them is Harry Hole, creation of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Translated into more than 50 languages and with sales over 40 million so far, you just know that fans around the world have been waiting for Knife, the 12th book in the series, following on from The Thirst, which came out in 2017.

Those familiar with Harry Hole will know all about his alcoholism, and the way he will push himself to any extreme to solve a case. The vampire killer of The Thirst certainly took him to the brink physically, emotionally and morally, so it’s no surprise that Harry has fallen off the wagon. His wife Rakel has informed him it’s over and Harry is drinking his days to oblivion and pining for her all the same.

But his marriage definitively ends one night in early spring when someone pays Rakel a visit and violently stabs her to death. Although he was on a bender when it happened, Harry wants to get involved with the case in any way he can and immediately has a suspect in mind. Svein Finne, a rapist and murderer Harry helped put away many years ago, has recently been released from prison and is up to his old tricks. He’s even raped a young woman in a cemetery and, despite Finne’s threats, her allegation gives Harry the opportunity to entrap the rapist – now in his 70s – to try and force a confession.

Further brutal scenes ensue but Finne manages to wriggle himself free of the net, and appears to have an alibi for the night of Rakel’s murder.

It’s back to the drawing board for Harry, and the plot grows increasingly complex with a range of evidence cropping up, including footage from a wildlife camera situated outside Rakel’s home, the knife that was used to kill her, unregistered guns, DNA from the blood at the scene and on various people’s clothing and shaky alibis – some of which turn out to hold no water whatsoever.

Jo Nesbo keeps you guessing with shifts in his plot lines. It’s always a delight how this author brings in side characters from a tangent and we see Oslo, the police, the villains and Harry Hole from their perspectives before we are spun back into the main story. Early in the book, Harry deals with a young woman accused of killing her mother, and later meets a heroin fiend bailed for the death of another addict. He desperately needs the beggar’s change in order to make a phone call.

Vignettes like this play into the plot in their own way, and provide light relief from the rigorous pounding Nesbo gives his bread and butter detective in this hefty 530-page novel. However, the book’s overall structure is something that slows it down. The investigation occurs across four distinct phases, each with a different chief suspect, and the dynamism of the author’s style isn’t quite enough to hold it together. As well as Svein Finne, Rakel’s work colleague Roar Bohr, an Afghan war veteran, comes under the spotlight. Then a bar owner in Oslo, and even Harry himself. It feels like they’re queuing up for scrutiny.

So the story drags, lacking the overlapping layers of intrigue seen in other books, where police and political corruption constantly crop up. At the beginning of Knife, the bent cop Truls Berntsen is Harry’s partner but he disappears from the story. It would have been fascinating to see this unusual series character interacting with Harry throughout the investigation.

There are a lot of facets to Knife – many more than are touched on here – and, well, you’ll never guess whodunnit. But it just doesn’t feel as cohesive and doesn’t draw you compulsively to it like The Snowman or Police did. Maybe Harry, his Jim Beam and the moral ditch they often wake up in together are starting to lose their appeal. Knife has a great ending, but it’s an uphill climb getting there.

Read our complete guide to the Harry Hole series here.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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