Norwegian Morality Tales: Jo Nesbo

I’m late to the game. I started reading Jo Nesbo in 2021. He’s been an international bestseller for years. Maybe that’s why I avoided him: I thought he could be a prolific writer who churns out serviceable but boring novels.

Although Nesbo is certainly prolific, he’s anything but boring. He writes consistently intriguing crime novels, not to mention work in other genres, such as children’s literature.

So, what is it about Jo? In short, the settings and the characters. Take the Detective Harry Hole novels, centered in Oslo. In that series, Nesbo switches effortlessly between description — of both people and places — and action, between local colour and the colour red: blood and guts.

Some readers find that Nesbo overdoes the blood and guts. Admittedly, there’s never a shortage of corpses in his crime novels but I accept his version of the Norwegian underworld, overblown though it may be. As for Nesbo’s characters, Harry Hole is a flagship protagonist: dark, at times unlikeable, yet uncompromising and driven, a man with raging booze and drug habits encased in a solid ethical core. In a sense, Nesbo’s Hole novels are morality tales; good struggles against evil, not only within Hole himself but also outside of Hole, in the world at large.

If I have to pick a representative Harry Hole novel, it’s The Son (2014), which, on one level, is a retake of a central Christian myth — the Son trying to please the Father. To be expected with Nesbo, there’s a tsunami of blood. On the other hand, there’s a deep story here, a saga of good and evil full of pithy observations and a flood of emotional scenes.

Not a fan of blood and guts? Try a non-Harry-Hole novel like Midnight Sun (2015). Although certainly not a cozy mystery, to quote the LA Times, it’s a “softer, gentler Nesbo – as far as that goes.”

Jo Nesbo on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jo_Nesb%C3%B8

The Gift of the Gab: Tana French

During the course of 2021, I discovered a fine Irish-American novelist: Tana French, who writes literary detective novels set in or near Dublin (the Dublin Murder Squad series).

French’s dialog delivers the magic elixir of story-telling: presence. She can capture the essence of a character with a line or two of craic (conversation). She has the gift of the gab; like Elmore Leonard, her dialog will hook you.

French’s latest book, The Searcher (2020), is a stand-alone novel featuring retired cop Cal Hooper, a sympatico Yank who has washed up in the west of Ireland, looking to leave the mean streets of Chicago behind. Hooper worked Missing Persons in Chicago; as luck would have it, he becomes embroiled in a local misper case.

The story unfolds in rural Ireland, sans a slew of high-octane car chases or bloody gun battles. However, there’s no lack of drama. If you like stories told with a slow burn, yet plenty of flareups along the way, The Searcher is for you. If you want a policier with forensics and hardened criminals, look for French’s Dublin novels.

Tana French on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tana_French

The King of Southern Noir

Who’s the reigning King of Southern Noir? James Lee Burke. Some say he’s the best living novelist in the United States. I wouldn’t go that far. However, he is one of the best living crime/detective novelists. He’s also a Philosopher King, a crime writer who salts his work with references to thinkers as diverse as Saint Paul and Jonathan Swift.

A Private Cathedral, 2020: The latest novel in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, set in New Iberia, Louisiana.

Burke wrote A Private Cathedral in his eighties. It mines the moral ground of his earlier Louisiana novels, deploying variations of previous protagonists and antagonists: tough but good-hearted cops, cultured but evil killers. Hence, some of the novel covers repeat territory (be aware, it’s bloody terrain).

As always with Burke, there are beautiful descriptive passages. The narrative shifts as the novel progresses, swerving from a detective tale to a morality tale, from forensics to fantasia — with every detail expertly rendered, all gifts from Burke’s fertile mind. As well-described and inventive as the gifts are, some hijack the storyline. At times, the tale felt like a cross between Milton’s Paradise Lost and a Stephen King horror story. I still enjoyed most of it. Nobody writes detective novels like James Lee Burke. He delivers gentility and degeneracy in equal measure.

PS: If you want to check out JLB’s earlier work, try Creole Belle or The New Iberia Blues.

Click here for James Lee Burke on Wikipedia.

A few quotes from A Private Cathedral:

“The light was strained, as though it were draining from the western sky into the earth, not to be seen again, robbing us of not only the day but the morrow as well. Of course, these feelings and perceptions are not uncommon in people my age. This was different. As I mentioned earlier, I have long believed that my generation is a transitional one and will be the last to remember what we refer to as a traditional America.”

“This was the era that I always believed was the best in our history. But it was gone, and to mourn its passing was to demean it. The ethereal moment lives on in the heart, so what is there to fear?”

“There are epiphanies most of us do not share with others. Among them is the hour when you make peace with death. You don’t plan the moment; you do not acquire it by study. Most likely you stumble upon it. It’s a revelatory moment, a recognition that death is simply another player in our midst, a fellow actor on Shakespeare’s grand stage, perhaps even one even more vulnerable than we are.”

Gifting Books: The 2020 Holidays

Not so long ago, nouns didn’t double as verbs. You didn’t gift a book. You gave one. 😉 But grammar evolves. It’s 2020. It’s the Holidays too. To give a book is to give a window into another world.

Here are three titles I recommend:

NON-FICTION

Feel Free by Zadie Smith, 2018. Thirty-one engaging essays, ranging from pieces about Smith’s homeland (England) to literature, dance, art, and popular culture. Smith is a rare writer: although she’s erudite and lofty, her prose is warm and inviting. I’d love to have a conversation with her – on any topic.

FICTION

Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson, 2020. A 2020 Giller Prize finalist; sequel to The Outlander, a Giller Prize finalist in 2012.

In Ridgerunner, Adamson entwines two genres – mystery and western – to create a captivating morality tale. The characters inhabit a Wild West that’s both lost and still with us.

Last but not least, my crime pick:

Exit Music by Ian Rankin, 2007. As I did last year, I’m suggesting a novel by Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir. Although Rankin has written many recent novels, I rate Exit Music above them. It’s the seventeenth Inspector Rebus novel. Rebus is three days from retirement but he’s not going out with a whimper. Ach, nae, not John Rebus. He revels in righting wrongs.

The Night Fire – California Noir

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown and Company. 2019.

In his lengthy oeuvre, Michael Connelly has created a contemporary version of California Noir: murder turns on money and fame – not just money, not just fame. In the case of victims, wealth and fame put targets on their backs. As for murderers, they kill for money and notoriety.

The Night Fire opens with detectives Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch and Renée Ballard joining forces. Although two detectives aren’t always better than one, in this novel they are. Bosch, recently retired from the LAPD, and Ballard, a LAPD graveyard-shifter – an outsider and an insider – team up to solve a recent murder. Being L.A., one murder case leads to another. And another. The novel won’t win awards for inventive prose. {If that’s what you’re looking for, take a pass.} However, The Night Fire has garnered numerous kudos. To wit: “Connelly is without peer when it comes to police procedurals …. He’s the modern master of the form.” ~ Publishers Weekly.

Connelly shines a light on the personal side of police work. Unlike many current crime authors, he focuses more on life as a detective than CSI magic. You experience the day-to-day existence of Bosch and Ballard as they pursue perps, sifting through an avalanche of evidence.

The novel delivers a boatload of police procedural details, but they don’t sink the storyline. The Night Fire is sharply plotted. The protagonists are tough yet sympatico. Connelly fans won’t be disappointed.