Book review: The Bat, by Jo Nesbø

29 11 2017

Jo Nesbø is a Norwegian crime novelist whose CV includes previous stints as a footballer, musician and reporter. He is most widely known for his longrunning ‘Harry Hole’ series of novels, and has won several awards including the Riverton Award, the Glass Key Award, the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize and the Peer Gynt Prize; he has also been shortlisted for an Edgar Award. I’ve previously reviewed his Blood on Snow / Midnight Sun short-novel double here.


The Bat (Flaggermusmannen, 1997, translated by Don Bartlett; a title that translates literally to ‘Batman’, thus offering considerable scope for confusion) is Nesbø’s debut novel and the first in the Harry Hole series. It has a setting that’s somewhat unusual for a Norwegian crime novel: Sydney. (It was apparently written during an extended holiday which Nesbø took in Australia, during which time he was supposed instead to be working on a book describing his time in a rock band.) The novel’s pretext is that a Norwegian woman holidaying in Sydney, Inger Holter, has been found raped and murdered; Hole, a troubled Oslo police officer, has been sent out to Australia to escort her remains back to Norway. Harry has no official involvement in the investigation into Holter’s death but, assigned an obliging ‘chaperone’ from the local Homicide division, he decides to assist in an advisory capacity. Naturally—this being crime fiction—he ends up much deeper in than that.

The Bat suffers from a few first-novel problems: the pacing is patchy, there’s perhaps rather too much monologue-as-exposition, the characters don’t always ring true. (In particular, I wasn’t convinced by the risktaking, on a supporting character’s part, that set up the story’s climactic third act.) I might have expected also that the book would betray a superficial knowledge of Australian culture and character, but in fact it doesn’t do too badly on this score: outside of a reference to ‘the single-track railway to Darling Harbour’ (i.e., the monorail), it acquits itself fairly well, though does get too infodumpish in places. Harry is an engaging though not appealing character: marked by alcoholism and rather too ready with his fists as a means of interrogation, he’s nonetheless capable of significant insight, reflection, and vulnerability. The book’s antipodean location means it’s of limited usefulness as an introduction to his ‘patch’—we get elements of the Harry Hole backstory, but see nothing (save in flashback) of his home environment and colleagues—but it’s an interesting enough investigation and establishes its main character well. If it feels more like a prelude than an introduction to the series as a whole, it still shows an ability with tension and intrigue that helps explain Nesbø’s considerable success in the genre.




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