Book review

Jo Nesbo's 'The Son' is a grisly, gripping thriller

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Jo Nesbo, known for his acclaimed series featuring Norwegian detective Harry Hole, introduces a new cast of characters in his latest effort, “The Son.”

By Jo Nesbo
Knopf ($25.95)

“The Son” is Sonny Lofthus, a docile prisoner (thanks to an unending heroin supply) incarcerated in one of Norway’s state-of-the-art (in both construction and corruption) prisons. Sonny is a scapegoat for multiple grisly murders in Oslo, calmly taking the rap in exchange for heroin.

His confessions allow the guilty to remain unscathed and free to sustain a giant web of political and criminal evil. This massive conspiracy exists to support the misdeeds of “The Twin,” the bigwig boss of all that is rotten in Norway.

Sonny, in jail since his late teens, descended into heroin addiction following the death of his beloved father, a policeman who committed suicide after being exposed as corrupt.

Sonny’s fellow prisoners treat him as a confessor, and he bestows absolution and comfort for their transgressions and physical ailments. Either his fellow prisoners mistake his heroin stupor for Zen-like calm, or Sonny possesses the fatalistic wisdom and purity of soul of another “Son” who bestowed absolution, and who sacrificed himself for the sins of others. Multiple subtle allegorical elements in the plot draw this parallel, which doesn’t hold up well or for long.

Once Sonny learns that his father was in fact murdered to save his family, all Christ-like comparisons must end. He quits a 12-year heroin habit cold turkey, then plots and executes a daring escape from prison. From there, he methodically avenges those responsible for the death of his father, and by extension his mother, who, broken by grief, followed his father into the afterlife.

As this is a Nesbo story, nobody dies a quick or merciful death. Diabolical and horrific ends are planned and carried out by Sonny, whose development was arrested when he was a teenager. The 30-year-old makes his way around Oslo almost innocently, without knowledge of cell phones or the ability to drive a car.

Sonny is tracked by Inspector Simon Kefas, once the partner of Sonny’s father. The inspector’s sympathy for Sonny grows as he discovers how the young boy he knew so well was used.

Of course, the corrupt prison, police and political officials don’t want Sonny taken alive. The criminal kingpin of Oslo and his henchmen also are on the lookout for Sonny, who manages to adapt to his new world quickly with the help of sympathetic folks who eventually learn his identity and enable his vigilantism.

The pace of the novel is fast, the characters (especially Inspector Kefas) complex and well drawn, and the plot smart and tricky. Mr. Nesbo, unlike most of the Scandinavian authors whose works are being imported in mass quantities, has the ability to draw attention to social issues without dropping the plot ball.

Mr. Nesbo also has had luck with his translators, in this case, Charlotte Barslund. Either that, or Mr. Nesbo writes so concisely that his translators are the ones with the luck. Either way, exposition is sparing and effective and never bogs down the action.

Reservations about the book come strictly from the overabundance of intricately awful death scenarios. The basis of mysteries and crime fiction is murder, and those of us who enjoy these books are without delicate sensibilities. So it seems ungracious to complain when an author creates a murderer who goes that extra mile.

 However, complicated and detail-laden revenge scenarios detract from a well-plotted and well-characterized story. Upping the ante on gruesome murders not only does not indicate talent, it can actually subvert it.

Those horrified or worn out by the extreme violence may withdraw in self-preservation, thus checking out of the carefully crafted world the author worked so hard to create.

Kathleen Guzzi is a writer living in Ross (

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