Catching up with Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series has been one of the pleasures of my reading year, and with this third novel published in translation (English readers joined the series in media res, as it were, in order, unlike, say, the Wallander books) Nesbo has taken his craft, and his hero, to another level. The Devil's Star is impressive because it accomplishes a number of difficult feats, not least the rehabilitation of its hero.
When the novel begins Hole is at a low ebb, drinking again, thrown out by Rakael and cut off from her son Oleg. His failure to solve his partner's murder, to convince anyone that she was killed by his corrupt colleague Tom Waaler, has turned him back to the sauce, and his police career is doomed. Even so, because of a shortage of detectives on a holiday, Harry finds himself working with Waaler what turns out to be a case of serial killings, ordered precisely on the pentagram known as the devil's star. This is the strongest part of the book, because Nesbo can make Harry's pathos real, palpably so. He never pulls his punches, or seeks the reader's sympathy; the moments where Harry behaves in the self-destructive way drunks do have the ring of real desperation.
Harry snaps out of his lethargy to pursue the killer, to break the code that the murders suggest, and here the novel becomes more familiar, standard serial killer fare. What is interesting the way the stories of the various victims, suspects, and cops all intertwine, creating any number of red herrings, including some that go back to World War II, the subject that will not die in Scandinavian crime. But when the crimes are 'solved', and Waaler demands one act from Harry to prove he is really on his side now, the story picks up again.
Its weak point is that we aren't convinced why, except perhaps because of his massive ego, Waaler would want Harry on his criminal 'team', and we know for a mortal certainty that Hole would never agree to join. So when Harry finally goes renegade, having found the real killer and taken possession of Waaler's fall guy, we aren't surprised. But what Nesbo does at that point is to ratchet up the tension: everything is working in Waaler's favour, and given the despair that permeated the first third of the book, the possibility that, in the end, Waaler might win and Harry might lose still seems real.
Nesbo has created one of the great detectives in Harry Hole, and what is most impressive is the way he's able to make Hole seem like a different person as he's reflected in the actions and vision of various characters. He is a sympathetic character who rarely asks for sympathy, a Wallander with a touch of Marlowe's idealism, and a hidden resevoir of white knight charm. And Nesbo is very happy to work on complicated plots and old-fashioned, if un-traditional clues. Hole (no puns intended, as you will see) may be the first detective since Charles Willeford's Hoke Mosely to solve a case based on a Holmesian analysis of anal stimulation. It's that willingness to take risks with the familiar tropes of the format that makes Nesbo so good, and makes me look forward to my next Hole novel, The Redeemer, the fourth appear in English.