Book review(s): two Norwegian crime novels

3 08 2016

This is another two-for-one Scandinavian crime fiction review, albeit this time with the justification that the two novels are not only by the same author, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, but are also (in one edition, at least) published back-to-back in the same volume. Nesbø—whose career back catalogue includes stints as professional footballer, rock musician, and reporter—is well known as the creator of the ‘Harry Hole’ series of mystery novels, but these two short novels do not feature Hole; nor, in the strict sense, can they be classed as mysteries, since there is no detection involved. Instead, each novel deals with the attempts by a hitman, having fallen afoul of his employer, to make good an escape to some form of sanctuary. There’s thus a thematic connection between the two stories; which in fact also occur within the same world: events in one story are alluded to as background in the other story, though the protagonists differ and, to a first approximation, the stories can be read independently of each other. As it turns out, I read the second story first, and only realised that any form of connection existed between the two about halfway through the other story. (The Wikipedia page on Nesbø conflates the characters of Olav and ‘Ulf’, the respective protagonists of the two novels, as the same individual, something which my reading of the texts doesn’t support; but it’s possible I’ve overlooked some deeper connection between the two works, so I may be mistaken.)

blood_on_snow

In Blood on Snow (Blod på Snø, 2015, translated by Neil Smith), successful hitman Olav is hired by his boss, Oslo heroin kingpin Daniel Hoffmann, to kill Hoffmann’s young wife Carina. Olav, who has already undertaken several killings for Hoffmann and is concerned that the life expectancy of a hired killer with such detailed knowledge of his employer’s involvement in crime might reasonably be expected to diminish with each additional hit, reluctantly agrees to take on the task. But it’s more difficult to steel oneself to kill an attractive young woman than it is to dispatch a disloyal employee, and Olav, having staked out the apartment in which Corina spends her days, instead elects to adopt a different ‘fix’ to the problem of Hoffmann and his wife, unleashing some reasonably substantial unintended consequences in the process. It becomes necessary to flee the scene, but how can he handle the problem of Hoffmann’s fury at his insubordination, and who can he trust?

midnight_sun

In Midnight Sun (Mere Blod, 2015, also translated by Neil Smith), a fugitive identifying himself only as ‘Ulf’ arrives by bus in the village of Kåsund, deep within Norway’s northernmost region, Finnmark, keen to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Oslo drug baron, known as ‘The Fisherman’, who has ordered his death. But visitors to Kåsund, even at the height of summer, are thin on the ground, and the locals are suspicious of Ulf’s claim that he has come here to hunt in the surrounding woodlands. Plus, with The Fisherman’s long reach and tenacity, it’s only a matter of time before those on his trail arrive to flush Ulf out … and, as his past history as a hired killer comes to the villagers’ notice, he finds himself as much at the mercy of locals such as the young, strait-laced widow Lea, the moonshine-peddling Mattis, and the resignedly hedonistic Anita as at the blind forces of time and luck.

In both Snow and Sun, Nesbø’s protagonists’ first-person narratives have a laconic, naïve honesty about them, and a natural storyteller’s flair that I found vaguely reminscent of Steinbeck. These are flawed, street-smart, surprisingly engaging individuals who have stumbled into their respective careers as hitmen out of ruthlessness or greed, but because all other doors seem to have been closed in their faces: they are reluctant killers, desperate to escape the traps in which they have become embedded, and motivated by a need to protect those for whom they care. I’m inclined to the view that the stories’ open and sometimes confessional style somewhat reduces the inbuilt tension and the impact of the occasional outbursts of violence—Nesbø does not seem to be aiming, here, for the sense of knife-edge desperation that propels the books of Åsa Larsson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, for example—but Snow and Sun are eminently readable, and imbued by a warmth and a degree of wisdom that, given their subject matter, might seem surprising.

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