(Editor’s note: With the publication of this review, January Magazine welcomes a new contributor. She’s Gretchen Echols, a Seattle writer, artist and bookstore employee with a longstanding fondness for crime and mystery fiction, especially the works of Ross Macdonald, Reginald Hill and Tana French.)
It is a July hell in Oslo, the Norwegian city gripped in a blistering heat wave. A young woman is found dead with a bizarre mutilation to her body and an odd calling card from the murderer. Meanwhile, Harry Hole, one of the best detectives on the local police force, is in his own private hell — a month-long alcoholic binge. When he receives a call from his superior, Bjarne Møller, Hole is passed out on his living room floor, clutched in the throes of a recurring nightmare involving his sister and elevators.
Møller is desperate. The detective unit is understaffed because of holiday vacations. He has protected Hole by stalling on sending adverse reports of his erratic behavior to higher authorities, but now Hole is on the verge of dismissal. However, the only detectives left in the sweltering city with the ability and experience necessary to handle the mutilation case are Hole and his nemesis on the crime squad, Tom Waaler. Hole’s last chance to escape the implosion of his career, it seems, is to work this investigation with Waaler.
Jo Nesbø, one of today’s hottest Scandinavian crime-fiction writers, gives us in The Devil’s Star (Harper) a carefully paced thriller built on the classic struggle between a detestable murderer and a detective dedicated to saving lives and discovering truths. Hole, though, puts a personal face on evil. He is convinced that Waaler, a predator and bully, is the person behind the beating death of Hole’s former partner, Ellen Gjelten. He has spent months tracking down an eyewitness to the event, only to then have that witness disappear. Unfortunately, Hole’s boss has dismissed his allegations against Waaler as the result of an obsessive quest entirely without merit. Hole’s obsession has also ruptured his relationship with his girlfriend, Rakel Faulke, and her son, Oleg. Under the same circumstances, you might go on a binge too.
Five days after the discovery of the first body in Oslo, another woman steps around the corner for a short errand — and doesn’t return. Is she just a missing person, or the second murder victim?
As Hole, Waaler and the rest of the team struggle to understand the meaning of the clues left by the killer, and more corpses appear, the tension heightens. A pattern in the crimes begins to emerge and there is concern that a serial killer may be on the loose. Along the way we are given insights into the source of Harry Hole’s fears of heights and elevators, the bases for many of his nightmares. Nesbø even includes a biblical confrontation — straight from the New Testament — between Hole and Waaler, and we begin to wonder if our hero has really gone over to the dark side.
Among the strengths and pleasures of reading Nesbø’s well-crafted mystery (his third, following The Redbreast  and Nemesis ) are the short descriptions revealing the complexities of his secondary characters.
Consider, for instance, Otto Tangen. He’s the owner of Harry Sounds, a mobile professional surveillance company called in on the case by Waaler. The crime team has predicted where the killer will probably strike next, and members hope to intercept him. Tangen has obviously seen Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 movie, The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman as a bugging expert, dozens of times and would have said about himself, “without batting and eyelid, that emotionally speaking he was closer to his microphones” than to his son, the result of a one-night stand. “At least he had managed to persuade [the mother] to christen the boy Gene,” writes Nesbø. Although Tangen’s friends have never heard of the Hackman movie, this reader enjoyed a smug moment of recognition, having viewed that film only recently.
Tangen has amassed a large collection of microphones, cameras and other tools of his trade. Waaler, well aware of the man’s darker secrets, applies pressure to expedite Tangen’s cooperation.
Another character worth watching: young Beate Lønn from the forensics lab. Early in her career on the force, she had her own run-in with Waaler. Now she is the recipient of his unwanted sexually charged harassment. But late in the novel Lønn has an opportunity to thwart him in a tense scene.
Nesbø shows great talent in keeping his tale moving. He shifts between multiple points of view that include several soliloquies from a character we suspect is the killer. He weaves his story lines seamlessly, ratcheting up the tension as he builds to the long finale.
But — reader beware. There is definitely a high “ick” factor in the twisted scenes at this story’s end. When I had 50 pages or so to go, I was stopped in my tracks by the nasty, loathsome details of a murder. I was repulsed and I had to quit reading. I was committed to writing this review, however, so I had to get past my disgust. After a break of several weeks, I started over in a careful rereading of the story. This time I recognized the skill and artistry of Nesbø’s writing: the red herrings, the clues with their possible interpretations, the shrewd pacing of the plot and the variations on his principle theme of revenge. Nesbø is an excellent craftsman, so I felt I owed him the courtesy of reading through to the end. As the story spools out to its concluding battle between good and evil, the resulting violence becomes merely gruesome and strangely satisfying.
Harry Hole engages our sympathy in The Devil’s Star, despite his obsessions and fears and his reckless, alcoholic ways, because he is a tenacious protagonist intent on uncovering the truth. Don’t look for any garden parties or bodies left conveniently at the end of library benches in a murder mystery involving Hole. Expect, instead, a gritty, realistic triumph over human wickedness.