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Jo Nesbø
The Snowman
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Knopf / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-59586-7
Publication Date: 05-10-2011
390 Pages ; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 06-11-2011

Index:  Mystery  Horror

Harry Hole is not a happy man. It's an unsuitable state for driven cop with a drinking problem, an ex and her son. He starts at complicated, and then things get messy. Which, conversely, is why he is so well suited to solve complicated crimes where evidence, suspects and victims all seem to be in conflict, completely unassociated with one another. Harry Hole need only look within to find the same sort of violent chaos.

But Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has something special on ice for Harry Hole in 'The Snowman.' And like most terrible things, it starts quite simply, with a snowman found by a boy in his front yard. The snowman is wearing the boy's mother's scarf — and the mother is missing. But that's not the strange part. What bothers Harry, and the boy, is that the snowman in front of the house is not looking out on the street. It is looking up at the house.

Nesbø is a master of building suspense, layering in his clues and his miscues with close attention and detailed, almost gnarly prose. He revels in the grit of Harry's unfortunate life and Harry's bad choices. Those bad choices have led Harry to some very bad people, including the man who sent Harry a note months ago, signed "The Snowman." Winter is coming and Harry will soon find out how cold his heart can be.

'The Snowman' is the seventh Harry Hole novel, and the fifth to be published in English. The first two are slated to be published in English soon, so if you want to wait and read the whole series in order, the way may not be that long. But it's going to hard for most readers to hold back from such a tantalizing book, especially since it lives up to the setup. "The Snowman" is a tense, terrorizing novel, with a great gallery of characters good, bad, and distressingly evil.

The first strength of the Harry Hole novels is the cast of characters that Nesbø has created, and those who are added for each book. Harry Hole himself gets more and more complex and detailed with every outing, and even readers who have not read the series before will find him an alluring and innovative take on the classic broken-man detective. His new partner, Katerine Bratt, is smart and self-possessed enough to keep up with Harry, providing a protagonist who, in fighting with Harry, manages to bring out the strengths of both. Rakel and Oleg, his ex and her son, provide even more context. Nesbø's ability to evoke thorny relationships gets under the reader's radar. We feel we might know these people outside the book.

Don Bartlett's translation of Nesbø's prose is really quite superb. 'The Snowman' has a creepy, sort of horror-novel feel to it. Nesbø is quite descriptive and his evocations of landscapes, crime scenes and even everyday domestic tableaus are somehow chilling beyond the frigid weather. The weather doesn't hurt, though, and Oslo itself seems on the verge of becoming a character.

But we ostensibly read mystery novels for plot, and Nesbø keeps us riveted and off-balance by zipping back and forth, offering us one suspect here, two there, building something up and then effectively misdirecting the reader. 'The Snowman' plays fair, but like Harry Hole, readers will find themselves up against an exceptionally smart and powerful antagonist. This is why we read mysteries, and 'The Snowman' is dark and dense enough to bear a second reading, as the first two books come into English. We have a long journey ahead of us with Jo Nesbø. Harry Hole has a story all his own, and 'The Snowman' is a chilling entry in a superb series.

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