by Jo Nesbo
576 pages, Vintage
(This review is of the unabridged audio edition, read by Sean Barrett)
Review by Pat Black
Audiobooks. I’m big into them, now. We’re setting foot into a whole new world.
Stepping gingerly into my aural canal; taking care not to tangle your boots in the rough gorse at the entrance; hammering crampons into my cochlea; trudging ever east – fudgy underfoot – in that slow, cotton wool-stuffed journey towards my brain.
I was already cheating on my regular bookshelf with my Kindle. The two had come to an understanding, if not quite a truce. The bookshelf knows that it has the quality and the sturdiness I will forever come back to and treasure, but the Kindle can always be counted on for a filthy 10 minutes before bed, or an even dirtier thumb-trembler at lunchtime.
Now I’m cheating on them both with audiobooks in the car. When will the house come crashing down?
In truth I wish I’d made this switch a couple of years ago, when I first started a fairly long commute by car. Circumstances at the moment do not allow for much in the way of reading time. It gets so that I dream of having a holiday somewhere with a beach and blue water; when asked why, I honestly reply that it’s to clear my books backlog.
I think I might need help – actual hired help, personal readers to go through the unread books round the clock, before reporting back to me later. I’d be a sort of Barbara Cartland in reverse.
Anyway, this was my second foray into the world of Audible.com, thanks to a particularly thoughtful Christmas pressie, and it was just as enjoyable as my first.
Jo Nesbo’s books were a familiar sight on three-for-two tables at Waterstone’s and elsewhere in the wake of Stieg Larsson’s stunning post-mortem success roughly a decade ago. A few times I was almost tempted. Clever marketing, anyway; on the front cover was an image of an attractive, if somewhat unsettled looking girl with dark eyes and hair. Salander, you think, almost subliminally. The cover and the author’s name scream “Scandie Noir” at you, and that’s exactly what you get. To be fair to Nesbo, his work was around long before Stieg Larsson’s, but this is the book that launched him globally.
The Snowman is centred on the Norwegian capital Oslo, and stars the grizzled police inspector Harry Hole. According to the audiobook, you pronounce Hole as “hooleh”, close to “hula”, and not, er, “hole”, as in the thing in your bucket, or your shoe, or, eh…
The same was true of the author’s name, which is more like “Nesb’” - the word truncated after the B - rather than “Nesboh”. This was according to the pronunciation used by the actor Sean Barrett, who narrates the whole book, anyway. It may not actually be the way it’s intended to be spoken, though I don’t doubt the actor has done his research.
Within minutes of pressing Play, thoughts of Toast of London were battling the spoken word for supremacy in my mind, but I don’t say this to mock or belittle Barrett – it’s a brilliant performance, and we’ll come back to that shortly.
The novel is a... *paste crime novel cliché here*. Thrill ride? Roller-coaster? Page-turner? It is all of these things. How about “a thoroughly entertaining and engaging psycho-thriller”?
Someone is picking off women who are married with children - striking when the first snows of winter fall. The women often vanish without trace, although there is one ghastly exception which shows us how sadistic the murderer is. The killer leaves a calling card at the scene of the disappearances, which gives him, or her, their tabloid name: a snowman, staring at the windows of the house.
You will find a couple of nits to pick. A big one is Hole: brilliant but maverick detective, bit of a loner, drink problem, haunted by the past, still has loads of sex. He could be a Scandie Inspector Rebus, but then Rebus comes from familiar stock in his own right. Inspector Cliché.
“Stock” is a key element of The Snowman. The very uncomfortable topic of unfaithful mothers and cuckolded fathers unwittingly raising children who are not their own is a big factor, as is a rare genetic blood disorder which could ultimately point towards the killer's identity.
Suspects come and go, some arousing suspicion, some avoiding it. There's a lot of “hey - this person's the killer! No, wait, that's a rod silde - this person's the killer! No, wait...”
This helps muddy the waters sufficiently to allow the real killer to slither past the reader undetected. They appear on your radar, of course, but Nesbo skilfully makes you doubt the readings. As such, The Snowman just about passes the key test of any mystery: Did you guess who did it? Well, kinda, but they were on a shortlist, and I was never sure, even after the moment they were unmasked.
This is the ludic element of every mystery, thriller and whodunnit. There’s a game going on between writer and reader, and the story has to dispense with logic at certain times in order to fool you. It's a board game, with a host of suspects lined up, motive attached, and all with a potential part to play. In a sense, if the author wrong-foots you, they have to strain credibility in order to make it all fit. It all makes sense in the end. It’s a big novel, and Nesbo handles the story and its pay-off well. In considering this, I thought of Ian Rankin; he claims he often has no idea who the killer is when he starts writing, the better to surprise himself – and hopefully, his readers.
This book felt like a series I'd read before owing to one or two stock types, but characterisation is well handled. Hole is memorably described as having a “voice like a lawn-mower”, and I'll praise Sean Barrett's performance in that respect right away.
Then there's Markus Skarra, Hole's colleague on the force. He's blunt, rude and faintly moronic, fulfilling a sort of Inspector Lestrade function, blundering in and getting things wrong, allowing Hole to narrow his eyes and make the correct assessment. Skarra reminded me of more policemen of my acquaintance than Hole did. And yet, despite some shocking sexism when he makes a terrible pass at a colleague, I had a sneaking liking for Skarra.
But the chief pleasure in The Snowman for me was in the performance of the actor narrating the tale. I was tickled to find out that Sean Barrett played the Priest With The Very Boring Voice in the Father Ted Christmas special, a shocking 20 years ago now. His voice certainly isn’t boring here, but it’s memorably rich and deep. There’s a couple of Steven Toast-style moments – I’m sure that isn’t how you pronounce “flaccid”, fella – but I admired the way he slipped into and out of different characters’ voices without sounding silly. By and large he goes for a Scandinavian burr for Hole and his own Actor English accent for everyone else, but I was tickled when he opted for northern English tones for Skarra. For all I know, that’s what people in parts of Oslo actually sound like, but nonetheless it was inspired.
It’s a shame he doesn’t try for a Scandie accent throughout – words like “panties” and “c*ck” would sound terrific in a Norwegian accent, as would “nipples”. Maybe spoken with an air of hysteria, like that lad with the goggles and the rifle at the start of The Thing.
“Nipples” are significant in this story.
This is the essence of hypocrisy coming from a Scotsman, but I heard a pleasing poetry in the odd names and their pronunciation. Despite all those hard, abrupt consonants bouncing off each other like drunks in a taxi queue, there’s a strange mellifluousness in the Scandinavian tongue. It got so I would repeat the names every time Sean Barrett uttered them. Katrine Bratt (“Brahtt-eh”). Arve Stop (“Schtupp”). Idar Vetlesen. Markus Skarra. Zaphod Beeblebrokkse. I loved rolling them around in my mouth.
So, hats off to Sean Barrett – hours on end of reading, fully committed, with never a slip or an undersold line. My only other experience of audiobooks prior to my current kick was a thriller that I listened to during an insane phase of my life when I walked to and from work every day. It was read by an American actor who sounded bored for most of it. This made me bored, too, and I didn’t get to the end. It put me off audiobooks for years. I’m pleased to say this production has restored my faith in them.
However, sex scenes read aloud… now, there’s the sticking point, so to speak. Naughty bits in books are simply not meant to be experienced this way. They’re furtive things, best kept private, or even secret, and they work best when internalised. Actually saying those words aloud must be a bit like something bizarre you blurt out during orgasm, and then spend the rest of your sex life trying to live down.
How the poor man didn’t corpse saying things like “she grabbed his throbbing d*ck” and “I’d like to see your p*ssy”, I’ll never know. Maybe he did. Through the magic of digital editing, it’s all seamless.
I dare you to do it with your partner, your friends, or your workmates, the next time you read a dirty bit in a book. Pick a deep, fruity voice… or a sharp, raspy one… imagine John Hurt… hell, go Full Richard Burton… and let rip.
Next up on the audio list: Wolf Hall.