At the New Zealand International Arts Festival, Jo Nesbo was asked how he felt about being called "the new Stieg Larsson". With characteristic wryness he replied: "It could have been worse – I could have been the new Dan Brown."
In fact, the Norwegian writer’s success is beginning to rival both his late Swedish contemporary and the author of The Da Vinci Code. Apart from the fact that Nesbo is now (according to his publishers) selling one book every 23 seconds, Hollywood success beckons, as the film of Headhunters has had Mark Wahlberg hungry for the remake rights. Nesbo’s The Snowman is shortly to be filmed by no less than Martin Scorsese.
After several books featuring his emotionally battered detective Harry Hole, which combined first-rate storytelling with mordant social commitment, Nesbo’s days as a pop star seemed very remote. But The Snowman’s successor The Leopard won less critical favour, moving into international blockbuster territory. Now, reassuringly, we have Harry back in Oslo, tackling a very personal case involving the son, Oleg, of his ex-partner Rakel.
Oleg is a youthful drug dealer who may have committed a murder, and Phantom has the author back on edgy, caustic form. We have seen Harry’s fractious relationship with Rakel in earlier books, and his reconnection with her here is via her troubled son, who had regarded the detective as a surrogate father.
Substance-abusing Oleg has been accused of killing a fellow addict. The victim died in a squalid house that both shared, and forensic evidence points at Rakel’s luckless son.
He has only one thing going for him – Harry Hole’s customary reluctance to accept the obvious. As Harry plunges into the dangerous drug culture of the city, he discovers that a new synthetic drug "violin" is cutting a swathe through Oslo’s addicts. The most pressing agenda for Harry becomes tracking down the ruthless drug lords behind a destructive trade.
Nesbo, as ever, is not interested in painting a tourist-friendly view of his country. He banishes cliché in this overworked genre – his recovering-alcoholic, shambolic, rule-breaking detective is somehow always surprising us.
Some readers may have problems with a device recently used by Swedish writer Mons Kallentoft – narrative passages delivered by a dead man – but any reservations are brushed aside by the sheer sweep of the characterisation on offer. The relationship between Harry and Rakel is truly multifaceted, and richer in nuance than anything else in the crime genre. Phantom will maintain Jo Nesbo’s unstoppable momentum.
Barry Forshaw’s ‘Death in a Cold Climate’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan