Book review: Author earns a star for Norwegian crime thriller

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Before he wrote crime thrillers, Jo Nesbo worked as an economist. His smartest investment was Harry Hole, the Oslo police inspector who has made his creator a bestseller all over Europe.

I suspect Mr. Nesbo practiced literary due diligence before turning author because he's spotted all the trends in thrillers and served them up in "The Devil's Star," a tight, suspenseful mystery.

"The Devil's Star"
By Joe Nesbo
HarperCollins ($25.95)

We're all familiar with the brilliant wreck of a detective who just can't get along with the other cops and with authorities in general, can't sustain a relationship, except with bottled alcohol, and so lives a lonely, disorderly life.

Hole plays the part well. He's good -- at his job -- but his unreliability leaves him with few friends and a jealous rival or two on the force.

We're also familiar with the psychopathic serial killer who does weird things that are, perhaps, a code the detective has to crack.

In this case the five-pointed devil's star is left with each victim, who also has had a finger removed. The police are in a race against time to find where the killer will strike again.

As usual Hole drinks himself into trouble and is ordered to work this case under the supervision of Tom Waaler, a fellow inspector who Hole thinks killed his partner and only friend, Ellen Gjelten. He also suspects Waaler of illegal arms dealing. Waaler insists that alcohol is warping Hole's mind.

As usual, Hole resorts to unorthodox methods involving deception and insubordination, which are a problem under normal circumstances, to pursue the killer. His career, in short, is on the line.

Hole's personal life is also in crisis. His lover, Rakel Faulke, a single mom, has ended their relationship because his drinking has gotten out of control. Harry is also fatally attractive to other women, but he wants to remain true to Rakel.

In the good old days, detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe had no relationship problems because they had no relationships. They were tough. They lived for their work.

Modern detectives like Harry are, as we know, more complicated. He's got a softer side as memories of Kodak moments with Rakel haunt him. He wants them back. And so the stage is set.

While the parts of "The Devil's Star" are familiar, the whole is greater than its parts. Mr. Nesbo puts them together really well.

His narrative is swift and suspenseful. His characters have more depth and ambiguity than those in most thrillers. His plotting is so clever that it begs to be read as self-parody.

And the irony doesn't stop there. I mean, naming your hero Harry Hole. That's really cheeky!

Meet Jo Nesbo at Mystery Lovers Bookshop, 514 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont, 7 p.m. Thursday. Details: 412-828-4877.

Michael Helfand teaches English literature at the University of Pittsburgh. First Published March 12, 2010 5:00 AM


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