WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.
Phantom by Jo Nesbo is the 9th book in the Harry Hole detective series and my book club pick for June. You can pick it up and go without the background from the other stories, but fair warning: this book is good and you’ll probably want to start from the beginning. I know I wish I had. Harry Hole is a former detective in the Oslo police force. He’s an alcoholic, a smoker – in fact, he is pretty much the cliche bad-on-the-surface-but-with-a-heart-of-gold cop. Not to say that it doesn’t work, because even with the cop cliches, Harry Hole is a compelling and interesting character. He’s been working and living in Hong Kong but returns to Oslo for our story, investigating a murder case involving his former stepson, Oleg.
Full disclosure: The first few chapters of this book are dense and hard to slog through. Part of the problem for me is probably a language issue. I just can’t wrap my head around the Norwegian proper nouns. Some of the names like Oleg, Gusto, and Rakel were easy to absorb but others had me flipping back a few pages to remember what they were. City names, places, or people? No hablo Norwegian. This book (much in the same way that the Dragon Tattoo series did) surprised me with the seedy drug and gang culture in a place like Norway that I’ve always imagined to be low-crime and full of happy blonde people wearing knit sweaters and cross-country skiing. My stereotypes of Norway are exclusively positive, having known and been close friends with several Norwegians when I lived in Scotland as a tweenager so it took some mental adjustments to “get into” the story.
So blonde sweater-wearing stereotypes aside, Phantom is a legit crime novel with serious bad guys (mostly Russian and eastern European) and corrupt cops and politicians. Layered on top of all that is the mystery surrounding the circumstances of Gusto’s murder. Harry’s stepson Oleg has already been arrested for the crime and he arrives to find the truth, unable to believe Oleg could really be a murderer. The story of the murder is woven into other elements of the tale – twisted cop Truls Berntsen, coke-head pilot and drug mule Tord Schultz, and a missing girl – Gusto’s foster sister and Oleg’s girlfriend Irene Hanssen.
Harry Hole reminds me of the Bruce Willis character in Die Hard – very tough, smart, and seemingly indestructible. There are several times when he should have died but manages to survive. In fact, the book ends with Harry Hole lying on the floor in a rat-trap heroin den, seemingly dead from a bullet wound.
The last couple of chapters of the book are so tightly constructed and well-written that I got caught up in the story and didn’t want to put it down. Jo Nesbo is not one of those novelists who leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied. You don’t feel cheated at the resolution of the various mysteries in Phantom as I so often find to be the case with authors of lesser talent (for another incredibly talented mystery writer, check out Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series series. Her talent for non-linear storytelling is pretty impressive and she manages to create characters so real you can imagine them sitting down at your dinner table with just a minimum of details carefully and unobtrusively woven into the plot.)
This was my favorite pick so far this year.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Dark and Twisty Meter: Medium High
Page Turner Rating: Low in the first few chapters, finishes High