In the first of a new series for Legal Life, Bath author and a former solicitor, Lesley Kenward, gives BLS members her tips for crime, detective and legal fiction. Looking for a book for that well-deserved holiday, Lesley has a choice or two for you.
I can’t believe that there is a single self-respecting aficionado of the crime fiction genre out there who has not yet dipped a toe into the dark, troubled, self-destructive waters that flow through the heart of Norway’s Harry Hole. If such a reader exists, please stand, identify yourself and take the walk of shame straight to Waterstones. To the many who have duly dipped and inevitably gone on to submerge themselves without breath in the entire series, you will, no doubt, as I write, be beginning to twitch and may have already frantically searched Amazon for the next Harry Hole fix.
Created by Jo Nesbo, Harry Hole is dysfunctional to the extent that it requires a certain suspension of disbelief to run with the idea that the Norwegian police at times permit him to remain in Norway let alone work for them. Take Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg and double him. Then add several more layers of crippling self-doubt, spiralling addiction, and mental chaos. Then double it. Then you have Harry Hole, periodic inspector with the Oslo police and turbulent main character of Nesbo’s compelling series. Utterly flawed, Hole is understandable, likeable and human. He is the detective the reader roots for. In fairly equal measure, astute and confused, sharp and then blunted by alcohol, he is, perhaps remarkably, also believable as the detective who is able to solve the most complex of criminal plots on a diet of little sleep, much soul-searching, cigarettes, alcohol and occasional drugs.
I read The Snowman, not the first chronologically of Nesbo’s Harry Hole sagas, on the recommendation of a friend. Back then I was still wary of the influx of Scandinavian crime fiction and stayed away, convinced that Scandinavia could surely only produce unremittingly dark, humourless crime. Prejudice turned quickly to shame and excitement as I discovered a riveting plot, criss-crossed with complicated, beautifully woven story lines that were so well written that any well-versed crime reader is able to map the construction of the crime and potential solution yet the actual solution itself stayed tantalisingly out of reach until the very end. Within minutes of finishing The Snowman I turned to my mobile, brought up Amazon and bought and ultimately lined up on my bedside table, The Redeemer, The Leopard, The Redbreast and Nemesis. Then, letting out the sort of sigh that only accompanies the discovery of a new author who, in the time that I wasn’t aware of their existence, has generously managed to produce several novels, I began to read.
It’s true that I still experienced a niggling worry that The Snowman had been a one-off stroke of romping literary genius and that the other books would prove to be less all-consuming. I knew within seconds of picking up The Redbreast that I was wrong. I read them all. Each time a different plot; each story as compelling and each experience as satisfying – Jo Nesbo simply doesn’t let the pressure, the anticipation or the story slide. There is something in the series for the lover of the police procedural. Yet, although we all know how to pinpoint those signposts of a crime investigation which will turn out to be relevant to the denouement, the simply cracking stories tempt the reader in this case to ignore the markers (which are carefully and thought-provokingly placed), throw caution to the wind and just enjoy the ride. The resolutions, when they come, never disappoint. There is something for fans of the more maverick, damaged sleuth – I’m thinking John Connolly’s Charlie Parker – Harry Hole is just as brooding and hurt and the reader walks with him with the same care for him, coupled with a deepening concern that his destructive weaknesses will halt him before he has saved the world. And there is a great deal for those who just enjoy great stories that keep them guessing till the end.
My advice? Read them all. One after the other. Don’t intersperse with other writers. No one story repeats itself in any of the other books. Locations change, plots are newly created yet Harry’s story develops as the crimes he solves grow ever murkier and more soul-destroying. What does run through each of the books is a humanity, compassion and shared understanding which bonds those who work and live together in a world where the bad guys just keep on coming. And, of course, Harry Hole is the link in each story. He will frustrate you, concern you, baffle you, occasionally resemble you and always entertain you. Take a walk with him on the dark side. And don’t look down.