Ghostly doings with Harry Hole

Nordic crime thriller ‘Phantom’ isn’t shy about commenting on social realities

Peter Rozovsky / The Philadelphia Inquirer /

“Phantom” by Jo Nesbø (Knopf, 400 pgs., $25.95)

I once suggested that some Nordic crime novels have enough mildly leftist musing thrown in to make readers feel intellectually respectable. One reply to that comment put it this way:

“It’s why I think ‘Downton Abbey’ does so well in this country, too. It’s basically an absurdly trashy soap opera, a notch or two down from the magnificent ‘Days of Our Lives,’ but because it’s on PBS and they’re speaking with English accents, it’s somehow thought of as being intelligent or classy.”

Indeed, Jo Nesbø and other Scandinavian crime writers are often praised for the morally improving qualities of their books, for casting a harsh light beneath the idyllic surface of the welfare state, but how idyllic can that surface be after so many years of harsh light-casting? (Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö published the first of their superb Martin Beck novels in 1965.)

Nesbø’s police and politicians are corrupt, and he portrays that corruption more entertainingly than many writers do (though he may have reached his police-corruption apex with the magnificently evil Tom Waaler in “The Redbreast,” “Nemesis” and “The Devil’s Star”). And that old standby, the right-wing nut, is the weakest part of “Phantom,” ninth of Nesbø’s novels about Oslo police inspector Harry Hole (pronounced HEU-leh). The character expounding those views is presumably intended as comic but really is a risible caricature, and perfunctory into the bargain.

A socially minded critic could say Nesbø sidelines the problems of xenophobia and sexism in Norway by consigning them to a pathetic sociopath, the better to let readers of sound views feel superior. But that may be overanalysis. Perhaps this novel’s token racist sexist is just the canny Nesbø giving the readers a bit of what they demand in their Scandinavian crime novels before he gets on with his story.

As always, there is much good in that story. Our first glimpse of Harry, freshly back from Hong Kong, is easily the best part of the book, and it reflects Nesbø’s interest in ghost stories. And, sneer as one might at easy pop-culture references, Nesbø ingeniously makes one such reference, the lyrics to a song, part of the plot. As always with this wryly humorous writer, “Phantom” contains funny bits that constitute Nesbø’s real social observation. My favorite of these comes as Harry finds one of his superior officers at a tennis club:

“In Norway you played soccer and skied. Tennis players attracted whispers and suspicious glances.”

Nesbø’s pop-culture references in “Phantom” fall into three categories. One is the ingenious, integral-to-the-plot example alluded to above. Another is the assortment of pop-music titles sprinkled throughout the book that presumably reflect the author’s own wide-ranging tastes. (“Myself, I like jazz, and I like rock, but I like pop, the smoothest pop music, easy-listening pop music,” he told me in an interview.) A third, the most ephemeral, is the labels, patently intended as shorthand for the contemporary zeitgeist. This is the most dangerous, because it risks puzzling readers who have not seen the television shows in question, much less readers in the future. What will “Mad Men” and Don Draper signify in five or 10 years?

“Phantom” follows, in order of English-language publication, Books 5, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 of the Harry Hole series (next up: Book 1). How does Nesbø keep things fresh? A damaged, brilliant, ungovernable police detective can get kicked off the force only so many times, lose only so many women he loves because of his own flaws, and drink himself into only so many alcoholic stupors.

Having placed Harry’s on-again, off-again lover, Rakel, in danger in a previous book, Nesbø here puts her son, with whom Harry has formed a bond, in peril. Therein lies the risk of the series form, centered on one character, in hard-boiled and noir fiction: How many perils can the author put his protagonist through before the whole thing starts to seem like a soap opera?

Don Bartlett has done his usual fluent, unobtrusive work of translation. There cannot be many better translators of popular fiction working today.