Jo Nesbø’s Nordic crime thriller is really really good. The Leopard is dense with predators and prey, the crimes are inventive and horrific, the heroes are terribly flawed. I couldn’t put it down. Well, slight exaggeration. I had to put it down to deliver on some work and to sleep for a few hours, reluctantly. Harry Hole–bad name, I suppose it isn’t as much of a fail in Norwegian–is a brilliant homicide detective whose last serial killer solve cost him everything he cared about in life and left him wrecked and off the force. He’s living in a hostel and a few opium dens in Hong Kong when he is persuaded to return to Norway because his father is dying.
The real reason he is hunted down and escorted home is that another serial killer is drowning young women in their own blood–the cirme scenes and the corpses are inexplicable and nobody can match Harry’s instincts and solve rate. He wants no part of it, and then an MP is bizarrely murdered in a public pool and he’s hooked. Again. Things do not go well. Harry is a barely recovering drunk with a modest opium jones. His cop shop is in the crosshairs of an ambitious Kripos commissioner, a special branch with big designs on the Crime Squad’s homicide jurisdiction. Harry is given a basement boiler room at the end of a tunnel that connects the jail to the Crime Squad and assigned two officers to help him track the killer, the beautiful and somewhat devious Kaja who lured him from Hong Kong and an old colleague from Harry’s earlier days on the force.
Murders proliferate and get creepier as do the complications, false solutions, promising leads, dead ends and endless political maneuvering for power. Harry is a mess but he’s still a wizard at uncovering evidence and conjecturing motive. Bellman, the head of Kripos, steals his thunder every time. And the crimes keep unspooling, out of control and beyond reason. As soon as a clue is resolved, the plot jags off in another direction and you realize, as does Harry, that nothing has been solved. The evil is layer upon layer of darkness and everyone is shadowed by it. At some point, Harry realizes that the murderer is toying with him. The murderer joins a long list.
Harry Hole, name aside, is a great character-sleuth-hero. Lots of interesting characters crawling all over the book. Unexpected plot developments, sick but believable. Various reasons for the tension to rise. As much as I crave a little light in books to off-set the daily chaos, The Leopard was captivating and completely enjoyable. I doubt I will read the prequel, The Snowman, anytime soon–can only take so much depravity at a time–but it’s probably just as good. Jo Nesbø draws you into the snow and the darkness with all the assurance of a master. I mean it as a compliment when I say he has a great criminal mind.
The Leopard (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) Jo Nesbø | Alfred A. Knopf 2011