by Karin Fossum
224 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
by Jo Nesbo
550 pages, Knopf Publishing Group
Review by Marc Nash
On the back of a BBC4 documentary about Norse Noir, (the region that brought you the Stieg Larsson phenomenon), I was sufficiently intrigued to march into my friendly neighbourhood indie bookstore and purchase works by a couple of the cited authors. One of them, Nesbo, is even promoted as the next Larsson, which is curious, as what came across in the documentary is that Swedish noir has a very clear evolution paralleling the social disillusionment with the country's own political and cultural ideals, but Norway has no such clear backdrop (both Nesbo and Fossum are from Norway). Norway is very rich (oil), a wealth spread reasonably equitably among its small population (4-5 million) and remains a fairly open society. So much so, Norway is host to one of the largest black metal communities in the world (leading to a spate of church burnings attributed to satanic rock fans). All by means of saying, Norway doesn't really have a social pathology like the US, the UK, Sweden and other countries producing their indigenous noir. But like any society it has its share of psychopaths, just ones unable to pinpoint cultural anxiety in their defence.
Both these books have sumptuously described landscapes for their backdrops, for that's one thing Norway can effortlessly supply. Nesbo has a setpiece scene around an Olympic skijump and it just works so well. Better than a car chase or hanging off a window ledge of a high rise. Fossum, a poet as well as novelist, describes a lake under the winter moon, and the water sluicing off rowing oars like "liquid silver". But that's about all these two thrillers share in common.
Let's begin with the staple of the noir thriller. The detective at the heart of the story. Nesbo's is Harry Hole and he ticks all the tropic boxes. Reformed alcoholic liable to fall off the wagon, maverick, insubordinate, lone wolf. As this is the first Nesbo I have read, I don't know how repetitive all the personal memories Hole has would become by this the 7th (only 5 in translation though) novel in the series. I did get the sense that the other books were being referred to, which always makes the presumption that the reader is reading them in order. As regards to Hole himself, while all the tropes are readily recognisable and Nesbo doesn't do anything new or subversive with them, some of his insights on life are well observed and redeem the more predictable facets of him.
By contrast, Fossum's detective pair are so far in the background as almost not to be in the novel at all. While it's interesting to focus on the mentality and the mindsets of the suspects, it is curious that the police and the procedural aspects are so thinly sketched. When they do appear, there are one line references that again refer to their previous appearances in earlier books, but the reader has even less to draw on than with Nesbo's strongly rendered Tec who remains far more present. I can't even recall the name of Fossum's sleuthing pair, which may just say something.
But in fairness, they are not her story. Three young men, friends from childhood, row a boat out on a lake in the dead of night. One promptly stands up and dives into the water and a freezing death. The book from there on examines the sense of guilt behind all three men, with a link to an event in the past and in that way the book is an interesting study of emotion. It is let down by some very strange assertions about the characters, which just jar but could be down to the translation. But since it was made evident in the opening description that this was a suicide rather than a murder, there is little sense of progression throughout the novel, even when a plot twist tries to take it on another notch.
The consideration of suicidal motives was not particularly enlightening and all in all I was left feeling a little let down. It is never quite established why the three are rowing out in the middle of a night on a freezing lake, which I found particularly unsatisfying. The best and most tender writing was the slowly burgeoning friendship in grief of two bereaved mothers. (I wonder if Fossum is good on writing women and mothers, less so on young males). When they linked their arms as a gesture of alliance as well as warmth, I nearly shed a tear. But overall the novel felt too slight.
With Nesbo the opposite was the case. Twists and turns at every corner. I have to say every red herring I spotted early, and knew they were falsely being offered up as the murderer and to what purpose. I will admit I didn't guess the actual murderer, but I do always get irritated when the killer personally targets the detective and turns it into a game to the death between the two. Whatever happened to stranger murders being investigated by a policeman with no ties to the case? But for all this, the final revelation of the motivation behind the murders was exceptionally well realised by Nesbo (eat your heart out Fossum!) It was thrilling and fiendishly ingenious and I tip my hat to Nesbo for the profundity of his thought. The snowman of the title is an infernal motif (given a resonant association with the killer himself) and the crimes themselves joyfully and gleefully rendered by Nesbo.
So I will return to Nesbo and his Harry Hole character in other books. His criminal pathology is exemplary and his standard detective at least has some personal insights on the darkness of mankind. Fossum however, I doubt I will return to. Maybe her publishers need also to look at whoever does her English translations. For a poet as well as novelist, there were too few lyrical phrases and too few insights into the human psyche.