Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Redbreast

The Redbreast
Author: Jo Nesbø (translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett)
HarperCollins, 2009 (originally published in 2000)
521 pages

Scandinavian crime novels are all the rage lately, and I can't seem to get enough.  Having read all three of the Stieg Larsson books, and having successfully sampled Sweden's Håkan Nesser (Woman With Birthmark) and Iceland's Arnuldur Indridason (Jar City), I decided it was time to check out Norway's Jo Nesbø. I wasn't disappointed.

It's late 1999. Nesbø's protagonist, Harry Hole, is a detective is Oslo. Harry's an alcoholic who's on the wagon - at least at first. Something happened to him in Sydney and Bangkok on a recent case, but we're not exactly sure what - The Redbreast apparently isn't the first Harry Hole book. It doesn't really matter, though, because other than the references to Sydney-Bangkok, this is a good standalone novel.

The Redbreast begins with action. Harry and his police partner are covering the route being taken by the US President and his entourage as they travel to the airport after an event. Harry thinks he sees an assassin, and shoots the man. Turns out, the man was a Secret Service agent who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the embarrassment, Harry receives a "promotion" and starts a new role in surveillance.

Suddenly, we're transported to the Russian front during World War II, following a group of Norwegian soldiers fighting on the side of Germany. Despite the abrupt change in setting and time, I immediately got hooked into the wartime story, although it did take a certain amount of concentration to keep the characters straight. One soldier takes a detour through a Vienna hospital. We don't know his real name, but he calls himself Uriah. This story-within-a-story adds to the overall mystery.

Meanwhile, back in present-day Oslo (which happens to be at the turn of the millennium and shortly thereafter) there's a growing tension between the immigrant population and modern neo-Nazis. Evidence has been found that a banned rifle has been smuggled into the country. Then a string of seemingly random murders takes place: a WWII soldier, a police officer, a young neo-Nazi, a philandering government official . . . and others. Are these events related?

This is a thoughtful, well-researched mystery, IMHO. Not only was I motivated to keep turning the pages, I also felt like I learned something about Norway's history. For example, I was not aware of the historical figure Quisling. I was motivated to go online to research a few things behind the story taking place in The Redbreast.

I like how Nesbø inserted trivia into the story. Especially the bird trivia. Even the quote at the beginning of the book (the reference to the title) was something interesting that I'd never seen before. I also like several of the minor characters. Harry's sister (Sis, who has Down's syndrome) is a shining light in Harry's semi-dark world. Oleg, the young son of Harry's friend Rakel, also brings out a kinder, gentler side of Harry. For me, this is refreshing, as I've grown tired of the stereotypical "lone wolf" detective.

By the way, Norway is high on my list of places to visit. Reading The Redbreast only strengthened my resolve to get there. Hope it's someday soon!