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When it comes to reading, I'm something of a magpie. I will pick up books by pretty much any author in any genre and give it a go. The Redbreast is the result of that attitude. I'd seen a lot of Nesbo's books on the shelves and heard a lot about him, so was keen to give one a go. When a chance came along to read one on the cheap, I jumped at the chance to find out more.
When Detective Harry Hole traces the import of an expensive and highly powerful gun into his native Norway, he believes a major crime - possibly the assassination of a high ranking figure - is about to be committed. His superiors are not convinced and try to divert Harry onto more concrete cases. Harry is not to be deflected and his investigations take him into the shady world of modern Neo Nazism and the uncovering of some war-time secrets which implications for the present.
Sadly, The Redbreast appears to have lost something in translation. A large part of the plot is based on the history of Norway during the Second World War and the deep divisions caused by those who chose to side with the Nazis, those who formed a small resistance movement and those who chose to flee. These may still be emotive topics in Norway, but they won't strike such a strong chord with UK readers. As such, it lacks the same level of emotional intensity that it would provoke in its homeland.
The plot is certainly full of twists and turns and generally well-crafted. If you are able to forgive the weaknesses outlined above than you might well find it a perfectly acceptable detective novel. It has all the hallmarks of the genre: a dogged detective (and an outsider) determined to uncover the truth; a long buried secret that vested interests would prefer to remain hidden and lots of red herrings to keep you guessing ... there's no doubt that the mechanics are all there.
And therein lies the nub: this book feels very mechanical. It's as though the author has sat down and looked at what make previous books (either his own or others) successful and then included all the essential ingredients. It feels like detective fiction by numbers and there is little to distinguish The Redbreast from the hordes of other books of detective fiction which compete for space on the bookshelves. At best, it can be described as competent.
Even putting this weakness aside, there were so many other elements that just didn't work for me. The constant flitting between the past (World War II) and the present never came off. This can be an effective narrative tool, using the past to reveal more about the present, but it just never got me interested. The confusing mass of characters - many badly fleshed out; some even pretending to be one of the others - was off-putting and made for a more difficult read. The worthy, but slightly turgid style combined with the rather forced references to birds, which seemed to be there merely to justify the title, we also an issue.
A more serious issue was that I never warmed to any of the characters. Each seemed deeply selfish and pretty unlikeable, seeking to use others for their own ends without thought for the consequences. Attempts to soften Harry don't come off and whilst the grumpy/cynical outsider is a staple of detective fiction, Harry Hole never really fitted into this role. It's not that I didn't like him rather that I found him terminally dull. Sadly, the same was true of the other characters.
The ending was also a massive disappointment, leaving major plot threads dangling. I understand that this is because the book is part of a series so these themes will be picked up later on, but it as a reader I found it very dispiriting. To invest so much time in a 500 page book and still not emerge with a full resolution was a huge anti-climax.
I actually got this book free as part of Apple's 12 Days of Christmas promotion in 2011 and I'm glad I didn't pay for it. The RRP is just over £5 (Kindle or print) and had I paid that, I would have felt seriously cheated. Perhaps it's just Nesbo's style and plotting that don't suit me. Whatever, I don't think I'll be rushing back in a hurry.
The rather gushing references to him as "the new Stieg Larsson" are (on the evidence of this book) rather well wide of the mark. Other than the fact that both are Scandinavian and both write crime fiction, there really is no comparison. Jo Nesbo and Harry Hole are a long way behind Stieg Larsson and Lisbeth Salander.
© Copyright SWSt 2013
The third in the Jo Nesbo series starring Harry Hole as crime-solver extraordinaire, this book is not as good as The Snowman (which seems to be the 5th in the series- certainly the 5th to be translated into English), but still has its definite plus points.
Set in Oslo, between late 1999 and early 2000, the story at first involves Hole being promoted upstairs when a security assignment he's involved in goes horribly wrong (it's a long story!) He is then put on an assignment to deal with Neo-Nazis in the run-up to Norwegian Independence Day on the 17th May.
However, while the plot involves the neo-Nazis at certain points, the real focus is on a group of Norwegian defectors who ended up fighting on the Russian Front alongside the Germans during the Second World War. One of these men, now an old man, has managed to get hold of a rare piece of weaponry which has evidently been used at a couple of crime scenes Hole is called to. Realising he means to eventually kill someone prominent with this weapon, Hole finds himself in a race against time to stop the killer before he completes what he's already started.
The plot itself I found quite confusing, in all honesty. For a start, I couldn't work out initially who on earth the group of Norwegian men in WW2 were fighting for or against. Then I couldn't understand exactly what the killer's motives were and who was supposed to be who. The killer himself is anonymous throughout most of the book, and you're left constantly guessing at which character form the 1940s he may actually be.
Whether this confusion is a result of my own occasional lack of ability to follow complicated plots (which more often occurs when watching films), or a weakness on the part of the author in making things clear enough to the reader, I'm not sure, though I strongly suspect the latter. As I said, The Snowman, by the same author, had an excellent plot which was much easier to follow.
Fortunately the weakness of the plot, or at least its haziness, is made up for in other ways. Firstly, Hole is sympathetically characterised- he's an inherently flawed character, who has developed a terror of flying in recent years and can't seem to stop hitting the bottle when stressed- elements of his character which help the reader to identify more closely with him.
Secondly, there are sudden flashes of humour to Nesbo's writing, usually in the form of sarcasm, which is quite unusual in crime writing and adds a nice touch. That this humour comes across in the English translation is, I suspect, largely thanks to Don Bartlett, who has done an excellent job of making Nesbo's writing flow effectively in another language.
Rather unfairly, I feel, Jo Nesbo (who is Norwegian), has been described as 'the next Stieg Laarson.' In fact, all the new editions of his harry Hole series have this stamped on the front. As far as I can tell, however, the only thing they have in common is that they are both Scandinavian crime writers, and I have to say that of the two, Nesbo is by far the more engaging.
As I said, this is quite a good book, but to get a really good introduction to the works of Nesbo, it would be best to start with The Snowman (or maybe one of his others, though these are the only two I've read myself). Starting with this one you may be put off by the plot, and it would be shame not to want to read any more of his afterwards.