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Friday, April 21, 2017

Groove Book Report- The Thirst - Jo Nesbo

To me, at least, there are very few decent thriller writers that can maintain that happy balance between creating a fast, readable story with up to the minute relevance and still surprise me with a plot that is refreshing and new.  Surely, every scenario has been done to death?  Nesbø is not only the master of Scandinavian crime fiction, but he's also a TV pundit.  Sometimes reality reflects his books (as at the time of the Breivik massacres, as Nesbø had written so persuasively about the rise of the far right in his country). While enjoying steady, prodigious sales, his last few books have been favourites with the critics, myself included.  However, The Thirst (brilliantly translated by Neil Smith) could well correct the imbalance. It’s a big-boned, big-paged, technicolor epic in the current Nesbø style, starting adagio and ending accelerando.   It's entirely up to date.  There are nods to hipster musicians Sufjan Stevens and Father John Misty and plenty of Tinder dates with young modern 'f**k-and-run' neo-feminists.  One of these is the main lead, a young female inspector. She's been given her first major case, only to have it snatched from her later by a politically hungry Police Chief.  His 'baddie', on the surface at least, is a bit cliche'.  Really, a killer with iron teeth? How many novels have featured some kind of pscho character like that?  Images of the protagonist in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, who hones her teeth, also pop into my head. Because of the political power situation we get the return of detective Harry Hole, Nesbo's wonderfully flawed 'hero', who is reluctantly co-opted to track down a vicious murderer who has killed a woman after an internet date. And when a second victim is found, Harry realises, against all other odds and advice,  that there is a connection with the one case that defeated him. Both justice and closure may be within his grasp – as well as a return to his lost childhood.

There is something of a recurring theme here. The Thirst arrives four years on from Police, and is sort of a sequel. In Police a series of policemen were killed by gruesome means. As is often the way with Hole’s cases, the perpetrator was hiding in plain sight: he was a colleague lecturing at the same police academy to which Hole had retreated having left the Oslo police department. The case was solved, but another killer roamed free: escaped convict Valentin Gjertsen, who on the last page of Police was on the brink of raping the pubescent daughter of his psychotherapist.

It turns out that our psycho, Gjertsen is still at large in The Thirst. He has been lying low, having undergone further facial surgery to make himself unrecognizable, but there’s no scrubbing away the lurid death-mask tattoo emblazoned on his chest. When a series of single women are murdered in their homes after Tinder dates, it doesn’t take long for a V signed in blood, as well as Valentin’s DNA, to show up at the crime scene. But Valentin’s lust for young flesh has transmuted into something altogether more bowel-shrivelling: a thirst for the blood of his victims, which he extracts by donning a set of iron jaws.

Harry Hole has now moved on.  He is a teacher now, on low pay at the Police College.  But he's happy.  He'd rather give the case a wide berth: his marriage to Rakel is going swimmingly, his alcohol addiction in abeyance while all his wounds, both psychic and physical, are apparently healed. But he’s soon blackmailed by the despicably ambitious Chief of Police Mikael Bellman – who calls him a predator, not a herbivore - to help catch the blood-sucking killer.

He’s keen to enlist his psychotherapist colleague Ståle Aune to help, but Aune is now a family man trying to coax his daughter Aurora through her miserable teenage years, little realising that it is she who was raped by Gjertsen. Step forward the garrulous Hallstein Smith, who is eager to use the killer’s specialist predilection to promote his theories about vampirism, which for lack of proof have hitherto found him ostracised from the psychology profession.

The first death is what Hole calls “a could have been me murder”. This is an Oslo where men and women have outsourced the hunt for sex and/or romance to a dating app. Even Hole’s new boss Katrine Bratt – the Bergen cop who’s been on meds since going batshit bonkers in The Snowman - regularly swipes for shags. But the murders themselves are spectacularly lurid. The Thirst is another highly competent if thoroughly bonkers excursion into Nesbø’s sick brand of Nordic noir. Something about the high latitude induces grandiose Scandi villains into behavioral extremism – see also The Bridge.

With each novel there’s a sense in which Nesbø has to give himself a higher bar to clear. The Snowman, published a decade ago, recounted his tussle with Norway’s first serial killer. Since then he’s had nothing but serial killers to deal with. Nesbø peppers the narrative with entertaining tracts of psychological underpinning, There are contextualizing allusions in The Thirst to Othello syndrome, the morality of meat-eating, and a particularly blood-curdling tribe of Native Americans. They may be steeped in deep research and may be utter baloney. But they're fun.

In the end the reason to come back for more is the sheer magnetism of Harry Hole. He detests being good at his job, but is unable to avoid utter commitment to it, for which the cost is high: there’s always someone close to him in grievous danger, and Hole is forever playing the sacrificial lamb who gives his blood and even expendable bits of his body to protect the public, and do honor to the victims. “The dead take priority over the living,” he says.

The Thirst like its stablemates is a bulky but zippy 500-pager which never hangs around in one place for very long. This is not literary fiction.  It's all about the shock, awe and flee.  Nesbø keeps you guessing with his usual bag of tricks, making everyone seem a little suspect (or almost everyone). His cynicism about bent coppers and unscrupulous journalists is an inexhaustible and entertaining sideshow. Perhaps, and not for the first time, he gives a little too much credence to the fantasy that a psychopath can carry on his work while keeping up a plausible exterior. What that means is that two thirds of the way in it feels as if every bow has been satisfactorily tied up, but Hole can’t leave the case alone, triggering a climax of breakneck, baroque delirium.

In short, if you liked the other ten, you’ll greedily sink your teeth into this. And maybe by the time it appears in paperback many more millions will have been sold. Later this year Hole makes his big screen debut in the guise of Michael Fassbender, who is the right height but nothing like ugly enough. The Snowman is directed by Tomas Alfredson, who made Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's about time Harry Hole became a movie star.

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