Rating: 2 stars
To Norway for The Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge. Except the first Harry Hole book by Norwegian Crime giant Jo Nesbø takes place in Australia, where a young Norwegian woman has been murdered.
The first thing I learned from the novel was that, in Jo Nesbø’s head, and who am I to doubt that he’s correct, Norwegians and Australians alike are casually racist. I also learned that Harry Hole is part of the grand tradition of slightly dysfunctional policemen who fall with embarrassing haste for women they have only just met and know nothing about. Within minutes of seeing her behind the bar, Hole can’t resist asking out a Swedish woman who worked with the dead Norwegian, having admired her long red hair, willowy back (?) and pleasingly rounded hips. That’s all you need to know about a woman in Hole’s world – how supple and pliant her back is and whether there’s enough haunch to grab hold of.
Nesbø has won accolades for his Nordic Noir series. He’s another writer who landed on a list of writers and their fictional detectives who might fill the gap left by Mankell/Wallander and Indridason/Erlandur that I compiled when I finished the Wallander and Erlandur books.
It was a mostly okay, occasionally tedious read. I was irritated by Nesbø’s smugness in having police officers explain repeatedly to each other that real life policing isn’t like the policing found in crime novels. Because police officers need to tell each other that. They need to ask each other stupid questions about how they do their own jobs so that Nesbø can show off to his readers that real police officers don’t behave like that. As meta things go, that was a particularly steaming pile of horse shit.
I knew I wasn’t part of Nesbø’s target audience when he took the time to explain where the phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” comes from. Pavlov and his experiments in conditioning is one of those things that I can’t believe isn’t widely known. Certainly not so obscure that it needs to be explained in a novel.
Nesbø also gets a bit lecture-happy at times. It starts when the Indigenous police officer Andrew Kensington painstakingly explains Aboriginal culture to Hole. It smacked of Nesbø having done some reading up on the subject and putting his non-Indigenous take on it into Kensington’s mouth.
Hole has an awkward encounter with Kensington’s surrogate son, Toowoomba, where he asks what tribe Toowoomba is from. He feigns surprise and answers that he’s from Queensland, causing Hole to splutter an embarrassed apology. Toowoomba takes pity on him.
‘You react like most whites,’ Toowoomba said. ‘It’s what you unconsciously expect of me. You imagine you’ve said something wrong, and it doesn’t occur to you that I’m intelligent enough to take into account that you’re a foreigner. … It’s not just you, Harry. Even white Australians are hysterically cautious about saying something wrong. That’s what’s so paradoxical. First of all, they take our people’s pride, and when it’s gone they’re scared to death of treading on it.’
It’s not entirely bad writing. There’s a hint of Nesbø twisting the corner of a handkerchief about it, hoping he’s hit the balance between showing that he’s empathetic with Indigenous people and showing that he’s self-aware enough to recognise his own whiteness. But then he follows it up with this observation.
He sighed and opened his large white palms. Like turning a flounder, Harry thought.
Like, what the fuck? I thought.
Later, Nesbø uses Toowoomba again as a vehicle for the history of Australia’s Indigenous peoples he’s read while researching the book.
‘Everything revolves around a bad conscience. Ever since the end of the nineteenth century the politics surrounding Indigenous peoples has been governed by the authorities’ bad conscience about the terrible treatment we’ve received. Just a shame that good intentions don’t always lead to good results. If you want to govern a nation you have to understand it.’
‘And Aboriginal people haven’t been understood?’
‘There have been different phases, different policies. I belong to the forcibly urbanised generation.’
Toowoomba goes on to describe the way forced assimilation has caused all manner of social problems for Indigenous people who have lost their community and their way of being. It could have been interesting had Nesbø handled it differently. Instead it reads like an inner dialogue he’s having with himself where Toowoomba takes the role of Nesbø the Curious and Hole plays Nesbø the Ignorant.
The thing that astounded me most of all was the way in which Nesbø used Indigenous characters to deliver cryptic dialogue dressed up as Dreamtime lore in order to squeeze in the twists in his plot.
I was more amused than astounded by the way Hole develops deep friendships with people within a few days of being in Australia working on a murder case in a second language. After only a week, he knows Kensington better than any of Kensington’s long term colleagues. When he eventually works out who the killer is, having led his Australian colleagues down a few blind alleys, he almost instantly has deep insight into who he is, which made me wonder why he hadn’t worked it out sooner. It’s pretty farcical.
His relationship with the red haired, willowy backed, pleasingly rounded hipped Birgitta also races along, moving from her initial wariness to an after hours picnic in an aquarium to soul searching about previous relationships that throws up this bit of insight straight out of Nesbø’s high school notebook.
‘People change. The person you long for may no longer exist. Bloody hell, we all change, don’t we. Once something has been experienced, it’s too late, you can’t get back the feeling of experiencing the same thing for the first time. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.’
The ending simultaneously came on really quickly and took an age to end. Lots of trying to get to a certain place in time that I think was supposed to feel tense and exciting but instead was pure nonsense. I almost admired Nesbø for the amount of cheese he got in at the end.
I had eight more of Nesbø’s books on my LibraryThing wishlist. I’ve deleted them all. I bought The Redbreast at the same time as I bought The Bat, so I suppose I’ll read that one day. I’m in no hurry, though.