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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Snowman

I finished listening to The Snowman (back in September), Jo Nesbo's breakout hit in America, back in September and now that same audio is showing up on many a year end best list.

Jo Nesbo is a huge best-selling author in Europe.  His Harry Hole series (of which this is number 5), is set in Norway and has been feverishly promoted here in America as a Steig Larsson, Nordic Noir readalike. America has fallen in love with Hole and embraced Nesbo.  Even though The Snowman is the 5th Hole novel, it is a fine entry point into the series.

The plot is fairly easy to explain, but the appeal of this book lies in how the investigation is laid out and in Harry himself.

The plot revolves around a new serial killer who is stalking married women with children who happen to also be cheating on their spouses.  He strikes only after a fresh snowfall.  To say anymore would give away the fun of reading this compelling story.

The plot is not why you read Nesbo.  This is why.  First, his idea of taking the innocence of a fresh snowfall and the fun of building a snowman and then making it scary and suspenseful is awesome.  I read this book back in September and got chills from the coldness of the snow here.  There is a scene where Harry is so freaked out by the serial killer and his co-opting of snowmen for nefarious purposes that he attacks some neighbor kids who are just building a snowman.  That was extremely unsettling and was a great was to build the tension here.

Second, Harry is the classic troubled investigator.  He had previously become a star for catching Norway's first serial killer, but his problems with alcohol had led to problems at work and with his girlfriend.  As The Snowman opens, a chastened Harry is looking for redemption. The problem is everyone else knows this and they don't initially believe him when he claims there is another serial killer.  This also adds extra tension and suspense.  [By the way, remember I entered this series here at #5 and I was able to figure out all of these past issues with Harry by reading just this book.]

Other appeal factors to keep in mind.  This novel has graphic violence; it is bloody, but it is also intricately plotted and very compelling.  You do get peeks into the killers mind also, but they are limited; the story is mostly  from Harry's point of view.  There are a lot of twists, but all are foreshadowed appropriately or explained realistically.  This is the story of a sick and evil serial killer, but a realistically possible one.  In fact, I was not surprised by who the Snowman was, but I was surprised by the "why he did it" and how it was all figured out.

Finally, My only complaint about this novel is that the ending was a bit too Hollywood for me. But most hard-core mystery readers will love it.
Readalikes:  I went on the Nordic Book Blog, which is my go-to resource for Scandinavian fiction.  I used their search feature to find reviews which made comparisons  to Nesbo.  Use this link to run the search for yourself, but here is one I found that I want to share immediately.  The words in quotes are from the linked entry; they are not mine: 
  • Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft-- "Malin Fors is an intriguing and complex heroine – she is tough, has had serious problems in her marriage and is now divorced. She also has a problematic relationship with her daughter, and tends to drink too much. She is mostly unbalanced and on the edge. I tend to think of her as a blend: one part Irene Huss, one part Inspector Winter and one part Harry Hole. She is talented, ambitious, tough, smart and unpredictable."

Another big appeal here is Harry himself.  He is from a long tradition of brilliant detectives who are troubled but have a good heart and the best intentions.  For people who are looking for more detectives like Harry Hole, I would highly suggest Kurt Wallandar (by Henning Mankell), Harry Bosch (by Michael Connelly), John Rebus (by Ian Rankin), the hard-boiled crime fiction of George Pelecanos or go old-school with Raymond Chandler.

Finally, I would NOT suggest fans of Nesbo run out and read Steig Larsson automatically, despite the marketing which claims otherwise.  Yes both are dark and violent, but the Nesbo is much more in line with a classic detective novel, while Larsson's books are more thrillers.  Nesbo spends a lot of time describing the investigation, while Larsson's amateur detectives are not as linear in their investigations.  Also, Larsson includes a lot of extra side-stories and diversions from the investigation, while Nesbo's Hole novels are much more focused.  You could enjoy both (I did) but it is not an automatic match.

I will continue to slowly clear the back log of my reviews in the coming days.

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