When you are ineluctably and unarguably the reigning King of Scandinavian crime fiction – as the charismatic Jo Nesbo is — with even your nearest rivals circling like asteroids around a Jupiter-sized planet, can you afford to rest on your laurels? In Nesbo’s case, the answer is probably yes — and some might think that the concise, fast-moving standalones that the author is currently producing might be considered relatively lightweight entertainments when set against the massive, socially committed novels featuring his Norwegian sleuth Harry Hole. But even a cursory examination of the new one, Midnight Sun, shows that this is simply not the case. Nesbo (whose name, he says, he is happy for British readers to anglicise in pronunciation rather than attempt something like ‘Yo Nessburr’) was in fact the first of the Nordic Noir authors whose name was used as a commercial ploy in the advertising in films of his work (Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters, for instance), and his non-Harry Hole books – such as this latest entry – may be slim, but their aim is focused: to deliver the kind of kinetic excitement that the writer Donald Westlake achieved in the novels he wrote as Richard Stark (also featuring a criminal antihero).
Midnight Sun follows the earlier Blood on Snow with a kindred plot: a maverick hitman flees from a sinister associate he has crossed. Jon is on the run from his former Oslo crime boss, ‘The Fishman’, who shows no mercy towards those who have betrayed him. Leaving Oslo, John tries to bury himself in an isolated part of Norway, one of those ‘midnight sun’ locales where the light always has a curious quality (Nesbo never forgets to add these important picturesque details). Despite his atheism, Jon finds sanctuary in the church of a Christian sect and establishes a relationship with the priest’s daughter Lea and her son Knut – she tells him about a hunter’s cabin he can hide in – and even gives him a rifle. But Jon has several new problems: he has been destabilised by the unyielding light of the region and the loneliness of his plight, as well as his growing love for Lea. And as any genre fan knows, there will soon be murderous nemeses knocking at his door.
It’s something of a cliché to say that Nesbo’s writing sports a cinematic quality, but it’s a fact that has to be registered – but like Blood on Snow (already being lined up as a film for Leonard DiCaprio), the new book is by no means just a treatment for a screenplay; this is a single-sitting reading experience from a writer who has honed the skills of his craft. (The translation by Neil Smith is deft and idiomatic.)
Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo, translated by Neil Smith
Harvill Secker, £9.99