Fire and ice. Lava and snow. Love and hate. Mercy and revenge. From Norway to Hong Kong and the Congo. Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo takes us to extremes and the ends of the world in The Leopard. Once again weaving a theme – this time of extremes -- through a densely plotted police procedural, Nesbo creates a visually saturated, film-worthy landscape, full of grisly murders, shifty enemies and exotic locales.
Nesbo begins with a murder that is also a suicide – an ingenious scene where the victim kills herself by making the wrong choice to relieve pain so horrible that she unknowingly drowns in her own blood. When a second body with the same wounds is found, a dilemma that will play out in the most personal of ways for detective Harry Hole is set fully in play: when is pulling the plug – or the string as the case may be or aiding others in so doing – the merciful and right thing to do? Is it better to endure or relieve pain, even if relief means death?
A possibly connected third death of a minor official signals serial killer – and as anyone who’s read any Nesbo before knows Hole is the only cop in all of Norway smart enough and trained to catch such a criminal.
First problem is he’s not in Norway any more. Harry Hole has hit bottom. His last skirmish with the Snowman in the previous book in the series has taken its toll. He’s living in the back alleys of Hong Kong amidst the opium dens, up to his ears in debt and without a passport, waylaid on his way to killing himself by jumping into a volcano in the Philippines. Overdramatic perhaps, but that’s the point and the Snowman did nearly kill those dearest to Hole: life love Rakel and her son Oleg. Rakel has fled to places unknown. Like Rakel, Harry doesn’t want to be found.
Investigative Crime Squad boss Gunnar Hagen has a different idea. He sends the beautiful detective Kaja Solness in pursuit of Hole. Though her beauty, message and the money she comes with are not enough, she has a trump card: Hole’s father, Olav is very ill and in the hospital. Anyone who knows Harry knows he will do (almost) anything for those he loves.
Second problem is Kripos, the Norwegian central agency that investigates murder, the same that raised its competitive hand in seeking the Snowman is at it again. They’ve got new rules and a new chief investigator, Michael Bellman, an ambitious cop who so resembles Hole’s old adversary Tom Waaler in previous books, that one wonders if Nesbo hasn’t just dusted him off, changed his name and a few details, and sent him back to work. Bellman quickly moves to remove Hole from the investigation.
Hole pursues the crime anyway and quickly finds the connection between the victims, one that suggests more deaths are likely. Sure enough. The killer invents another, more tortured way to drown.
Excessive gore is followed by extremes of nature – avalanches of snow and visits to volcanoes as well as trips to the Congo. Hole eats up the travel budget and then asks for more funds. Even his champion, boss Gunnar Hagen’s eyes pop at the audacity of Hole’s budget request calling him “expletive deleted incredible.” Hole’s preposterousness is not limited to money. To the dismay of his partners, he visits the dark edges of society. He uses patients in mental institutions as consultants in his crime solving.
All the while, he punctuates his work with visits to his dying father – the father who tells Hole he acts out of love.
Harry: “Of hatred, you mean.”
Olav: “No of love. It’s the same currency. Everything starts with love. Hatred is just the other side of the coin.”
The extremes share similarities. Olav, who is as different from Harry as night from day, also taught him as a child what to do if he was “buried in an avalanche and had constrictive pericarditis, a hardened sac around the heart that prevented it from expanding. An armoured heart.” Harry Hole suffers from such a metaphorical condition.
Reading Nesbo is fun but not easy. The Leopard is big, excessively plotted, and complicated featuring a many stranded plot with multiple characters and landscapes. I’ve found I have to keep track of even the most seemingly minor of characters and places, along with page numbers where their histories appear in order to backtrack when I need to. Numerous motifs weave through the book: a bride and wedding are among those here.
Nesbo also builds and ebbs suspense; he is particularly fond of ending chapters in cliff hangers. He uses tricks even when he doesn’t have to: a letter mysteriously signed “C,” where C is revealed in the following chapter; a chapter that ends with a voice on a phone, a voice identified in the next chapter. He uses every trick of deflection he can think of and just keeps throwing red herrings at the reader. Outrageous at times for sure but it kept this reader turning pages as she seesawed through emotional ups and downs.
So much about The Leopard is over the top. This is not a quiet book that creeps up on you from behind (like a leopard), though the agent of the murders might be. Rather it strains full of thrills and chills, melodrama and sensationalism. So perhaps the greatest surprise is not the violence but a final merciful act that comes seemingly out of nowhere and yet looking back makes so much sense. As it is delivered here, “the quality of mercy is not strained.”
Readers who dislike this book may say it goes too far.
It does. But as T. S. Eliot said in a different context, “Of course one can ‘go too far’ and except in directions in which we can go too far, there is no interest in going at all; and only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out just how far one can go.”
Both Harry Hole and Jo Nesbo take risks to find out just how far one can go. As an avid Nesbo reader, I get to go there too -- from the comfortable safety of my couch.