Harry Hole doesn't know when to quit, which is part of what makes him a great cop. Not a conventional one, he's a cop so relentless he consistently runs afoul of his own department but doesn't care; deeply pessimistic, hopelessly romantic and a straight shooter no matter how crooked his path, Harry Hole is all about challenging authority to get at the truth and restore moral balance to the world.
"Phantom" is the ninth of Jo Nesbo's increasingly complicated Harry Hole novels. It's personal and topical and hip, as usual. Whether it's the last one is a question; it would be unforgivable for me to give away the tantalizingly ambiguous ending. Mr. Nesbo, who knows his hometown of Oslo from the inside, also knows how to build tension both in his fiction and in our expectations.
In "Phantom," Mr. Nesbo sets an emotionally wrenching story about family within a twisty tale of designer drugs, Norwegian police corruption and a teenage underworld in which Harry's "son," Oleg, is both perpetrator and victim. Oleg is actually the son of a long-absent Russian man and Rakel, Harry's great love. Harry, here, is very clearly father to Oleg. Their bond of blood, if not kin, makes "Phantom" far more than a procedural.
The drug coursing through the veins of this taut mystery is violin, a synthetic narcotic even more addictive than heroin. Harry experiences it on a research mission into Oslo's junkie community. Forced to inject this fictitious chemical to prove he's not an undercover cop, Harry fakes the shot but doesn't completely succeed.
"On Prinsens Gate he got the delayed effect. Caused by those parts of the drug that had found blood, that had reached the brain via the roundabout routes of capillaries. It was like a distant echo of the rush from a needle straight into an artery. Yet Harry felt his eyes filling with tears. It was like being reunited with a lover you thought you would never see again. His ears filled, not with heavenly music, but heavenly light. And all at once he knew why they called it violin."
The violin wholesaler is the shadowy uberdealer Dubai, whose street force wears T-shirts linked to Emirates, the Dubai airline. When a top policeman colludes with a particularly randy councilwoman to "clean up" a heroin trade so robust it threatens Oslo's tourism business, the deal allows the more profitable violin to move in. One of violin's victims is Oleg, the son of Rakel, the woman Harry has always loved -- and abandoned when he left Oslo for Hong Kong following his battles with the Snowman, his nemesis in the novel of that name.
Oleg is accused of murdering Gusto, a fellow addict and Oleg's best friend. Both love Irene, a sweet young thing who also falls under violin's spell. Mr. Nesbo's storytelling from inside Gusto's head, presented in italics as if it were a dream, is something fresh for a Harry Hole novel. It's dramatically effective, casting a kind of spell even as it develops scaffolding for the increasingly serpentine plot.
Only one incident rings false, when Oleg and Gusto take mercy on a dying dog by putting it to sleep with a violin injection. Real junkies wouldn't spare any drugs.
"Phantom" bristles with violent scenes, an unusual form of torture involving a brick, nails and an ear, evocations of Oslo's atmosphere so vivid they put you there, and even romance. In addition to being a mystery, "Phantom" is a love story; Mr. Nesbo, like fellow Scandinavian noir auteurs Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, characterizes women with affection and understanding, and his keen depiction of Rakel, though minimalist, explains Harry's love for her.
Here they are in bed, after years apart:
"Humans are a perverted and damaged species," Harry said. "And there is no cure, only relief."
Rakel cuddled up to him. "That's what I like about you, the indomitable optimism."
"I see it as my duty to spread sunshine, my love."
One way Harry Hole does that is to solve mysteries his own way. May Harry continue his crucial, deeply moral work.
Carlo Wolff is a writer and critic living in Cleveland and a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News (cjn.org).