Friday, September 16, 2011

Nesbo's "Nemesis" stakes ground in Nordic Noir

      Just when you think you know what’s going on, you know you don’t. Such are the twists in Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis.  Solutions are always just out of the mind’s grasp – and there may be double or triple possible answers for the intertwining investigations detective Harry Hole pursues.
      A masked man enters a bank and when the money is not withdrawn fast enough, he shoots a teller. Robbery becomes murder. Both crime and robbery divisions of the Oslo police investigate.
      After an evening visiting ex-lover Anna, Harry, a recovering alcoholic, wakes up at home vomiting with no memory, and no mobile phone.  Anna is found shot to death. While others deem the death a suicide, Harry secretly pursues it as a crime, with himself as a possible suspect.   Intrigue deepens when Harry starts receiving cryptic e-mail messages from someone who has knowledge of his visit.
     Two more unsettling deaths occupy the background: that of Harry’s former partner, Ellen, and that of colleague Beate Lonn’s father, a police officer shot during a robbery years before.
      Tall, athletic, pushing 40, and full of flaws, Harry ranks as the best investigator on the Oslo force.  As a result he’s resented by some colleagues, protected by the Crime division boss, Bjarne Moller, and valued for his unconventional methods by  the Chief superintendent who confidentially gives him free rein when the robberies continue and the search for the perpetrator dubbed “the Expeditor” appears to be going nowhere.
     Harry’s self-described vices include smoking, lying and holding grudges. Holding grudges is a motivating force in his pursuit of justice.  (His least attractive trait is his name. Intentional humor or translation fluke? ) Harry’s  virtues include the dogged pursuit of justice, loyalty, craftiness and a sweet devotion to and tenderness for his girlfriend, Rakel, and her young son, Oleg, who are  away in Moscow in the midst of a contentious custody battle.
      Other characters come with their own well-defined personalities complete with quirks: 
 There are fellow police officers.
      Beate Lonn, a woman so unremarkable Harry thinks upon meeting her that if he turned away for a second he would forget what she looked like, becomes the officer in robberies unit he will work most closely with.  Small, plain, pallid, her oddity is a remarkable enhanced Fusiform gyrus, that part of the brain that specializes in facial recognition. Hers allows her to recognize all the faces she has ever seen and remember them forever.  (Does she also possess enhanced memory?)
     Egotistical, blonde, blue-eyed, always tanned Rune Ivaarson struts in as head of robberies unit. He grates so on Harry that Harry covertly finds a way to ditch him and work a parallel investigation with just Beate.  Ivaarson’s wits do not match his looks. His is a minor league ego compared to the slimy, but very smart, Tom Waaler, who’s been  told he looks like David Hasseloff from Baywatch  -- the same chin, body and smile. Waaler appears as if he is God’s gift to women but operates as if women are God’s gift to him.
      There are the victims and their survivors.
      Anna, a mediocre artist who lives fully, provides a sexy Bohemian to the plot.  Many lovers have been drawn in by her slim curvaceous body, dark, husky laugh and indecent lips.  A few wrinkles and strands of gray hair suggest fading vitality
     The bank teller Stine Grete’s grieving widower, Trond Grete picks up the role of madman for a time. He’s  so distraught he plays tennis alone in the rain following her death, and is subsequently treated for a breakdown.
      Perhaps the most wily among this crafty cast is self-imprisoned gypsy, Raskol Baxnet, master bank robber, illusionist, unpredictable chess player, and wily philosopher of revenge. He cites Sun Tzu’s Art of War,  a book he says is about the art of winning conflicts or getting what you want at the lowest possible price.   Using sleight of hand, he proves a good manipulator can make you believe that a money bill is a knife’s edge. He, like Harry, lies and hold grudges and honors his promises.  Noble in character, he settles scores adhering to a personal code outside the law.  Harry follows his example finding a haven from pursuit in prison, if only for a visit.
       U.S. armchair travelers like me may enjoy becoming familiar with Oslo’s chilly weather, streets, and temperament. We are also treated to an exotic journey to a community in Brazil where wanted criminals and shady characters from all over the world can live a safe, clandestine existence ignored by local officials for a price.
     Jo Nesbo’s plot layers, repeats images, uses doubles and foils creating patterns almost geometric through reflections.  It’s as if we are seeing the pieces of truth, not as parts of a puzzle piecing together but through the lens of an ever-shifting taleidoscope, the kaleidoscope cousin that mirrors what it’s pointed at.  We may be dazzled with the ever changing splinters of possibility, even as we yearn to see the patterns resolve into the full picture beyond.
     Such reflections are applied not just to events, but also to the familial relationships of characters. Characters double and recombine as family ties bind, shift and break into surprising patterns.
      And finally the taleidoscope aims at the book’s theme, “Nemesis,” and revenge in its spectrum of forms: settling scores, retaliation, retribution, justice.  Nesbo explores revenge as motive and motif. Nemesis is the name of the work of art Anna hopes to be remembered for: a triptych lighted by a lamp whose base is figurine depicting Nemesis, the goddess of revenge.   Nemesis recurs as code and as part of the larger arc of the series.
     Revenge as theme is explored as a psychological concept: A psychologist Harry consults suggests suicide is often a form of revenge. Harry catches a bit of television punditry and a philosopher and a social anthropologist discuss revenge as a political concept. One says:  “A Country like USA, which stands for certain values like freedom and democracy, has a m has moral responsibility to avenge attack on its territory as they are also attacks on its values.  Alone the desire for retaliation – and the execution of it – can protect such a vulnerable system as democracy.” Revenge is discussed religiously: “The lord shall come to judge the quick and the dead. God as Nemesis. Harry references revenge in a discussion of Aristotle’s aesthetic principle of catharsis.   Finally revenge is seen as the raison d’etre for Harry’s  profession: Humanity and society, we are told, can’t survive without it.
     While the book knits the many plots and subplots to a satisfying conclusion, one large end remains loose, as yet beyond Harry’s and the reader’s reach – Harry’s Nemesis. For the reader the loose end becomes reason to continue in the series.  Like others, I have not read the books currently available in translation in their sequential order:  The Redbreast, Nemesis, Devil’s Star, The Redeemer, The Snowman, The Leopard.  I will go back and fill in with Redbreast before proceeding.
      With the enormous success of the Millenium Series and the death of Steig Larsson, American publishers  and readers are hungry for more in the genre I recently saw referred to as “Nordic noir.”  Nesbo stakes his ground at the top of this niche. The best part: He’s alive and writing.

Thanks to Amanda for suggesting this author.

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