Police: A Harry Hole Novel
“. . . the series’ crowning glory, its pinnacle achievement.”
Unless the author is highly original, unless the characters are interesting and engaging, unless the stories immediately hook the reader by the time a series of novels reaches its tenth installment it might have begun to seem stale. Formulaic. Samey.
By the same token, if the author is at the top of his or her game, if the characters still have the capacity to intrigue and confound expectation, if the stories don’t just hook the reader but club them on the head until they sit up and take notice, by the time a series of novels reaches its tenth installment, it might truly fly.
Police by Jo Nesbo is a case in point. This is the tenth in Nesbo’s Scandinavian noir crime fiction series featuring the inimitable detective Harry Hole. In the previous novels, Mr. Nesbo has already built one hell of a foundation and here he provides the series’ crowning glory, its pinnacle achievement.
This is, quite simply, a must-read book.
It is characteristically brutal, tragic, darkly humorous, and riveting. It is the Scandinavian, literary equivalent of the TV show The Wire, which brick by brick, episode by episode, series by series built the story of Baltimore and its people in order that at the end we were presented with a complete cross-section of society, an excoriating study of the haves and the have nots, and the never will haves.
For though Harry Hole is nominally the main character of this series, Oslo itself is as much the protagonist of Jo Nesbo’s fiction. Just like Ian Rankin, whose Edinburgh was at least as prominent in his Rebus series as the eponymous detective, here Mr. Nesbo provides us with a unique perspective on the workings of this modern European city.
Like Rebus, and like The Wire, the Hole series provides us with a set of almost universal dark tales, but these are tales told in a distinct setting.
Welcome to Oslo. Consider this panning shot Mr. Nesbo offers us early in the book: “It had been a long, warm September day. The light transformed Oslo Fjord into molten silver and made the low mountain ridges, which already bore the first tinges of autumn, glow.
“It was one of those days that make Oslo natives swear they will never, ever move. The sun was sinking behind Ullern Ridge and the last rays swept across the countryside, across the squat, sober blocks of flats, a testimony to Oslo’s modest origins, across lavish penthouses with terraces that spoke of the oil adventure that had made the country one of the richest in the world, across the junkies at the top of Stensparken and into the well organized little town where there were more overdoses than in European cities eight times larger.
“Across gardens where trampolines were surrounded by netting and no more than three children jumped at a time, as recommended by national guidelines. And across the ridges and the forest circling half of what is known as the Oslo Cauldron. The sun did not want to relinquish the town; it stretched out its fingers, like a prolonged farewell through a train window.”
Welcome to Oslo, with its “half-hearted skyline” and its “bluish-white light. Like the colour of a dead body.” Welcome to beautiful Oslo, and welcome to its dark, hellish underbelly: “Truls drove down the tunnels and into Oslo’s belly. The car lobby, on the political right, had called the recently constructed tunnels the capital’s vital arteries. A representative of the environment lobby had responded by calling them the town’s bowels. They might be vital but they still carried shit.”
Like The Wire and Rebus, Police considers the shadings between light and dark, between morality and immorality, crime and punishment. And like them, it uses the dark-glass lens of the police force as a way of doing this. Norwegian forces of law and order are, as the title suggests, the central focus of this novel, and it offers some fascinating insights into how the police force operates when faced with a terrible crisis—a series of cop killings thrust under the glare of the media spotlight.
Toward the end of the novel, one of the characters asks: “What did it say about the culture inside the police force?” And Police is one 416-page exposition of the culture of Mr. Nesbo’s fictional Oslo police.
Mr. Nesbo shows us police as tribal. This is from the wake for one of the cops killed by the serial murderer (and recalls similar scenes in The Wire): “Truls stared at his childhood pal as they all raised their glasses to the ceiling, like warriors raising their spears at the chieftain’s command.”
(As it happens the only similar band of brothers in the narrative are taxi-drivers: “The taxis were parked in a circle and looked like a wagon train forming a defensive ring against Apaches, tax authorities, competitors and anyone else who came to take what they considered legally theirs.” But it is a similar sentiment.)
Mr. Nesbo shows us police as a psychological ‘disease’: “the diagnosis is police . . .”
Mr. Nesbo shows us police as a brand: “First of all, patrol cars are black and white, then they’re white with red-and-blue stripes, and now they’re going to be white with black-and-yellow stripes. This fiddling about just weakens the brand.”
And as a craft: “The craft of criminal investigation is evolving, as is everything else in society, and from what I can see, Bellman and his staff are cognizant with and adept at utilizing new methods and technological advances in a way which I and my peers would probably not have managed.”
And yet the police must work the brand, work their craft, under extreme pressure: statistics, politics, the media, what they must confront at crime scenes: “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” They must develop a herd-mentality as well as an individual code in order to shield themselves from the worst of it.
And indeed Mr. Nesbo shows us police at both ends of the scale: from those youngsters just entering police college to those hardened time-served officers approaching, or even past retirement age. And in each case, the police are shown as a different breed to “normal people.”
Take this example comparing the students at the police training college to their counterparts in a “normal” college across the same square. The normal students wear a uniform of “T-shirts, sagging trousers, nerdy glasses, retro Puffa jackets and retro army jackets . . .” while the police students wear “black police uniforms that always looked a bit too big however well they fitted. From afar she could pick out the first years; they looked as if they were standing in the middle of the uniform and the peak of the cap came too far down their foreheads. Either to conceal their insecurity or to avoid meeting the slightly contemptuous or even sympathetic looks from students across the square, the proper students, the free, independent, socially critical, thinking intellectuals. Who were grinning behind long, greasy hair, lying on the steps in the sun, exalted in their supine states, inhaling what they knew the police trainee knew might be a reefer.”
And then consider this example of a wrinkled detective for whom policework has been hardwired into him to such an extent that it infects how he experiences the everyday world. Hole asks Rakel to marry him, and after she says yes, “Harry’s reaction was automatic, rehearsed over a long life as a policeman. He turned to his side and checked his watch. Noted the time. 21:11. the nitty-gritty for when he had to write the report.”
Mr. Nesbo shows us police as grafters, and climbers, and as Churchillian speech-makers. This is Bellman, the police chief, providing an excellent metaphor for the necessary monotony casework, in a speech to his staff the police meeting room (named K2): “It’s a good name. The world’s second-highest mountain. The Savage Mountain. The hardest mountain in the world to conquer. One in four climbers dies.”
But you must tackle it because “it’s the hardest in the world. Physically and mentally. There’s not a moment’s pleasure in the ascent, only anxiety, toil, fear, acrophobia, lack of oxygen, degrees of dangerous panic and even more dangerous apathy. And when you’re on top, it’s not about relishing the moment of triumph, just creating evidence that you have actually been there, a photo or two, not deluding yourself into thinking the worst is over, not letting yourself slip into an agreeable doze, but keeping your concentration, doing the chores, systematically like a robot, while continuing to monitor the situation. Monitoring the situation all the time.”
Author Nesbo shows us the grunts within the police; the “burners” like Truls, those who walk the beat, but he also shows us the upper echelons of police society, like the slippery Bellman. At this level, the police are characterized by political maneuverings and chicanery.
And yet underneath all that, they face the same problems. Work and home-life bleed into one other; police struggle to reconcile what they’ve seen in their day jobs when they close their eyes at night.
And although the police are a band of brothers, they each must have their own individual coping mechanisms. Harry, for example, is referred to as “the lonesomest guy I know” by his oldest friend. They are tribal, but they are lone wolves, too.
This is the language of the Wild West. The police are men and women who do what needs to be done. The language is religious too. It takes in notions of heaven and hell; rules are referred to as “commandments”, and the cop-killer who sees a number of police have broken these commandments—those who have been responsible for “bad policework,” and “terrible workmanship” during cases—have committed what, to him and presumably the rest of the tribe, is a “dreadful betrayal.” They have desecrated “the flock which is all that is sacred.”
Indeed, our cop-killer sees himself as “the divine avenger.” “God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth . . .”
Mr. Nesbo asks two killer questions: What does it take to become a police; and what does it take to become a killer? And underneath those questions is the theory, common in a great deal of crime-fiction, that there is not much difference between the two.
The killer and the police are dealing with evil. Aune posits the theory “. . . the rule of thumb I adhere to in matters of the human psyche is that absolutely everything conceivable is possible. Plus a goodly amount that is not conceivable.” Police explores the outer edges of what is conceivable. It considers the places where ghosts lurk: “It was already in the air; invisible bodies with restless souls . . .”
Where we can hear dark whisperings: the novel references Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, “After three-quarters of an hour about death and madness. So you think everything will end well. Everything is back in harmony. But then as the album fades out, you can just hear a voice in the background mumbling something about it all being dark.” (A metaphor for the process of writing crime fiction in general? Certainly it is a clue to how this book works.)
Thus far into my review, it’s perhaps surprising that I have hardly mentioned the name of the lead character of the series, Harry Hole. Readers were left in some doubt as to whether there would even be another Hole novel at the end of the previous offering, and indeed Hole is conspicuous by his absence in the first section of the book: “there was,” it claims, “no longer an inspector at Crime Squad by the name of Harry Hole.”
Instead we’re left in the capable hands of Harry’s usual supporting cast, who are here thrust into more prominent roles.
But though Hole may not physically present until you’ve read over a quarter of the novel, he is a ghostly presence, a shadow, always present in the thoughts of the characters. His old colleagues recall his teachings: one “. . . remembered something. Something Harry Hole had once said to her. About how often you forget to check the patently obvious. She typed quickly. . . . As usual, Harry had been right.”
And: “Katrine gave a lopsided grin. “What was it Harry used to say? Intuition is only the sum of many small but specific things the brain hasn’t managed to put a name to yet.” Though they’ve agreed not to talk about Harry—“He’s gone and that’s that” —they soon realize “he’ll never be completely gone.” And: “Harry will always be remembered . . . Unsurpassed and unparalleled.” But gone.
But when the cop-killer eludes their clutches, his old team must try “digging up a man declared dead and buried,” they must let the Wild West hero ride back into town in order to clear up the mess.
We first meet Harry at the police training college, where he is lecturing now. He looks improved, as though he is living the good life now. Katrine tries to persuade him to rejoin their small task force: “Harry, this case needs you. And you need it.”
But Harry counters: “I need a murder case like a need a drink.” And Katrine thinks: “the analogy with drink came without any hesitation. It confirmed what she had suspected, that he was simply afraid. Afraid that is he so much as looked at a case it would have the same result as a drop of booze. He wouldn’t be able to stop; he would be swallowed up, consumed.”
Withdrawal from the police—effectively his going cold turkey—has changed him: “Beate nodded and studied him. The changes. He had laughter lines around his eyes, but still looked younger. The titanium prosthesis replacing his middle finger on his right hand clinked against the cup.”
Mr. Nesbo is excellent on Hole’s addictions. Hole is addicted to police work. He has: “an addictive personality bordering on OCD. Booze or hunting, it makes no difference, my mind starts whirring in the same grooves. As soon as I open the door, I’m there . . . And I don’t want to be there. I want to be here.”
Hole has discovered a new found consideration for what he has now, and what he stands to lose: “The fact that he was now together with her and Oleg was almost an exceptional circumstance, something he only half believed in, a suspiciously wonderful dream he was constantly expecting to wake up from.”
But eventually, he is provided with a gruesome call to action. In his dreams he is haunted by “The Dead Policeman’s Society,” and when the body of one of his closest allies on the police force, Beate Lonn is discovered, swelling their numbers to unbearable proportions, he just cannot say no. In this respect, he is the typical detective hero of crime fiction. Though the labels have changed—Hole is “no longer a manic-depressive”, he’s “bipolar type II”—Hole is still the man who has gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Hole eventually brought back as a consultant: “That means, for example, that he can’t apply for warrants, carry weapons or undertake arrests. And it also means he can’t lead a police operation.”
The first new taste of policework energizes Harry, like a shot of the hair of the dog which bit him: “The ex-inspector nodded to the cleaner and ran up the stairs. Tired, and yet astonishingly alert. Elated. Ready for more.”
And eventually: “It always did when he knew he had crossed the threshold, where it was too late, where he was in the wonderful free fall, where conscious thought stopped and everything was automatic, targeted action and well-oiled routine. But it had been so long ago, and he felt that now. He had been unsure whether he still had it in him. Well. He had it in him.”
There’s a lot of debate about exactly what it is Hole has buried within him, this man who is “about as Christian as a chemical formula”, this “black pit sucking in everything that was good around him, consuming all the love he was offered and also the love he wasn’t.”
And there is, at last, self-knowledge too: “. . . Rakel and Oleg. They were at home. Home. Where he would have been. Where he should have been. Where he would never be. Not completely, not fully, not the way he wanted to be. Because it was true, he didn’t have it in him. Instead he had otherness in him, like a flesh-eating bacterium, which consumed everything else in his life, which not even alcohol could keep down and which he still, after all these years, didn’t completely understand. . . . An imperative so strong and all-encompassing that it could almost justify all it destroyed.”
Police is a relentless, compulsive read. It acts upon the reader like a drug, rendering you hungry to turn the page, to read more, more. To explore more, more of the darkness. It is a fascinating, terrifying read—akin to the best horror fiction, the most superior crime fiction, and, ultimately, the series stands as one of the greatest literary masterpieces in any genre.