Friday, January 13, 2012

Nesbo's The Snowman: Now you don’t see it; now you do

The Snow Man 

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.                             

                          ----- Wallace Stevens

Harry Hole must have a mind of winter.  The Norwegian detective looks at a scene with a blank mind. He seeks what patterns emerge from a landscape of evidence.
Like Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” Jo Nesbo’s “The Snowman” features a protagonist, who “beholds the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
               Well, behold may be too awe-filled a word for Hole and the several snowmen that populate Nesbo’s book. The snowmen are, it turns out, the signature of the serial killer police detective Hole pursues.  As the killer plays with his pursuers, he creates increasingly awful --  horrific  -- snowmen.
Even before the investigations begin, Nesbo casually sets motifs. Hole wakes and listens to a radio nature program discussion on the sex habits of Berhaus seals in the Bering Strait. The commenters compare the seal population to Norwegian society, which is not as monogamous as it appears. Fifteen to 20 percent of children have a different father from the one they think.
Before Hole leaves his apartment an iterant mold remover knocks on the door. He’s investigating Hole’s building, searching out sickening mold in the walls. Hole didn’t know anything was there.  But, he’s told:  It’s mold.  Nothing to smell. Nothing to see. You can’t see that it’s there, but it is.
The story begins: There’s nothing for the crime division to investigate – so they take on a missing persons case.   But this one’s odd. A woman has disappeared in the middle of the night leaving behind her young son and a new snowman facing the house. Hole tries to reassure the boy that the disappearance will probably amount to nothing, even as an anonymous letter and the snowman’s pink scarf tell him otherwise.  How many missing person reports are hidden statistics – murders unrecorded as such?
A second disappearance, followed by the discovery of a gruesome snowman confirms Hole’s hunch. Although Norway has no record of serial killers, Hole solved such a case in Australia and is something of a celebrity sleuth following an interview on Oslo talk show.   He’s also the only  Norwegian detective have taken a course with the FBI on catching serial killers, learning such useful techniques as speed cuffing. Is he seeing something that’s not there?
               Once others agree that it’s a serial killer case involving victims who are mothers of small children, Harry, together with Magnus Skarre from forensics, and a new female detective, Katrine Bratt, work together. Bratt, like Beate Lonn before her in Nemesis, has a hidden motive of her own.
Hole’s icy methodology is limited to his investigative technique. Hole, otherwise, has the heated passion of summer in matters of the heart and his obsession with solving crimes.
Rakel, his on-again, off-again love, is somewhat off in The Snowman; she’s found someone new, a doctor, who is everything Hole is not. Rakel still feels attracted to Hole, but she finds him too obsessed with his work, too motivated by revenge, too raised-middle-finger defiant. His anger, like the mold in his apartment, is making him sick and spreading into others’ lives as well.  The relationship, however, can’t be severed so easily. Her son, Oleg still thinks of Hole as Dad, and Harry fondly continues to nurture their relationship. Thus, on a personal level Hole will explore what it means to be a father, while paternity issues -- biological and otherwise -- become a driving theme in the investigation. 
If the reader applies Hole’s methodology to Nesbo’s latest book, she finds recurring patterns of structure, plot, theme and character from previous works.  Here are a few:
·        The book begins with a flashback as an anonymous young man sits in a car while his mother engages in a tryst. As in Redbreast, we are allowed to see and not see (or identify) the murderer.
·        The Snowman’s chapters are dated – reaching back in years and then into the present investigation, marking it by days.   Nesbo sets the novel’s clock by placing events against mentions of American presidencies, a nice technique for those of us who aren’t paying close attention to the chapter dates.
·        Nesbo uses neurological or physiological medical conditions, an increasingly common practice in  much popular culture from books to television and film ,  to his advantage.  In an earlier work partner Beate Lonn, had an unusual Fusiform gyrus and the ability to remember a face after she had seen it just once. (A current new TV CBS show “Unforgettable,” stars a female detective with a similar ability – though not limited to faces. I discovered from Wikipedia that show is based on  David A. Adler's Cam Jansen series and J. Robert Lennon’s  short story "The Rememberer.”) In The Snowman,  genetic and physiological oddities become extremely important to the plot.
·        Also, the novel shares some plot structure with Nemesis. The crime seems solved several times over.  At times, Hole seems to be the only one convinced that the killer hasn’t yet been found.
 Admittedly the tie-in with Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man” is a genre stretch.  Nesbo’s fast-paced yet complex work leans more towards film than poetry. He has plotted a maze of murder with many dead-end turns and gory surprises at each of those ends.  It leads in its twisted way to a breath-taking, heart-pounding cinematic climax. The multiple twists, the brutal images, the obscure, grisly murder weapon, all seem chosen for maximum shock potential.
    I find myself glad that I am reading this book rather than watching the film it seems destined to become.  I would spend so much of a movie of The Snowman peeking through my hands, covering my eyes, trying to see and not see at the same time.


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