MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: PHANTOM by Jo Nesbo

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October: Phantom  by Jo Nesbo
~Post by Chris M.

A few years ago Jo Nesbo was marketed as the heir to Steig Larsson’s Nordic crime fiction throne, and while Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy certainly catapulted Nordic crime writers into a new sphere of the public eye, it is my belief that Nesbo will ultimately be remembered as the genre’s seminal figure. A master storyteller, Jo Nesbo’s writing manages to merge nuanced characters, detail driven narratives, and page turning thrills into a potent tonic that satisfies on levels few writers in any genre ever reach.

In Phantom, his 9th novel featuring Detective Harry Hole (the 6th to be made available in the US), Nesbo offers a somber and very sobering look at addiction and self-destruction; two themes that also describe Harry Hole and his past misconduct as an alcoholic. The story begins as Harry Hole returns to Oslo after a self-imposed 3-year exile to Hong Kong. Harry’s return is prompted by the arrest of Oleg, son of his unobtainable true love Rakel, who is accused of murder. Fans of the series will understand the sordid history shared by Harry, Oleg, and Rakel, and new readers should be warned that their relationship is at best complicated, and at worst an ongoing tragedy.

Phantom opens with a rat scampering over a dying body. We see things from the rat’s perspective as she scurries across the crime scene looking at the objects scattered about the room: a bloody piece of cotton gauze, a shell casing, a half-smoked Russian cigarette, and it’s these objects which represent the story’s many characters and interwoven plot lines and set a morose tone for the rest of the novel. The story that unfolds is told from a variety of perspectives. We’ve got Gusto the murder victim reflecting on his life, Truls Bernsten the corrupt cop trying to cover his ass, and Harry the detective trying to follow the threads that lead to something resembling the truth.

Phantom’s success is due in large part to Nesbo’s ability to draw complete characters. He understands his subjects and masterfully communicates his understanding to his readers. There are very few moments in any of Nesbo’s novel where a reader has cause to question the motivations of any particular character. This dedication to nuance is what sets Jo Nesbo head and shoulders above his peers. He adds a depth to his novels that is virtually unrivaled in modern crime fiction, and it offers a read so satisfying that other Nordic fiction feels like a lesser animal. This isn’t to say that Nordic crime fiction begins and ends with Mr. Nesbo, that wouldn’t do justice to many other great Scandinavian writers working today, but the experience of reading a Harry Hole novel somehow feels more complete.

If you are wondering how Phantom stacks up against the other books in the series, I can say with aplomb that it is Nesbo’s best work. Phantom, while smaller in scope than its predecessors, deals with a seemingly simple topic like drug addiction in such a way that it humanizes the petty drug pushers and users that populate the novels 400 pages. In the end we understand their motivations. Whereas a serial killer is always a maladjusted individual with some nagging psychological issues, drug addicts are people with emotional damage trying to escape their reality. Phantom also gives us a better understanding of Harry Hole, who’s long-running struggle with addiction motivates almost every action in his life.

As a long-time fan of Nesbo’s work I am both happy and sad after reading Phantom: happy because Nesbo penned a novel that ranks among my favorites in the genre, and sad because now I have to wait for more. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Jo Nesbo’s work, I urge you to check out this wonderful series. With the announcement that Martin Scorsese will be directing the film adaptation of Nesbo’s The Snowman, I can guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot about detective Harry Hole so get a jumpstart now so that you won’t have to catch up later.

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