Continuing my exploration of European crime fiction, I recently tried out Jo Nesbo – frequently advertised on the basis of being Scandinavian, therefore “the next Stieg Larsson” (which is at least a half-step better than the book recently advertised as “the latest from the publishers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – trying too hard much?!)

I made the colossal mistake of reading the first novel to be published in English – which turns out not to be the first written, in spite of continuing a metaplot that has been building through the 2 previous novels and referring to events from the first actually written. So if you’re tempted, The Redbreast is the 3rd novel in the series and the earliest Hole actually available in English (the first 2 have never been translated). The Devil’s Star, which I read, is actually the fifth in the sequence. Confused? Frustrated? Well, it’s clearly not “from the publishers of GirlwtDT“, eh?

In deep summer, Oslo is a ghost town suddenly disturbed by a string of unpleasant murders. Investigator Harry Hole rapidly identifies the links, and he is thrown into unwilling partnership with his detested, smug and possibly crooked colleague Tom, shining star of the Oslo force.

Harry’s flaw is his obsessive streak: workaholic, alcoholic, he staggers through The Devil’s Star in a blurry haze. Smart but not political, he’s the unwanted problem child of the Oslo police department. He enthusiastically embraces his willingness to destroy his career (and his liver), and it’s really only his sharp intellect and occasional shred of humour that make him remotely likeable. Given the smugly over-rated colleague (who may or may not be totally crooked), the dry and shy forensic specialist (who may or may not make terribly awful relationship choices), and the really rather awful bystanders (err, ditto on the relationship choices), this means he still has quite a lot going for him.

In the sashay through the string of crimes, Nesbo gives us randomly intimate moments; randomly frank moments; and randomly unpleasant moments to spice up the proceedings. I could have done without the passages from the victim’s perspective – they didn’t make me feel sympathy, and they didn’t really serve any other purpose – but they did make the victims feel real. Likewise Harry’s alcoholism isn’t glamorous, and you have to assume that later novels will attempt to sort him out – trying not to pass out on a corpse and later passing out on the corpse’s bed are far from ideal protagonist behaviours.

Ultimately, GirlwtDT this is not. It’s a step up from Scarpetta, but I felt Nesbo over-complicated the plot and diluted the punch because of it. Don’t be fooled by the hype – this is largely by the numbers medium-high octane crime fodder, with guns, SWAT teams, and the hazy paranoia of a crooked police force. It manages to be less irritating than it could be through it’s slightly off-kilter cast, from the old lady with her fond memories of serving the Nazi occupiers (err, remember the relationship choices I mentioned?) to the boozy redhead who really doesn’t belong with her uptight ex-fundamentalist boyfriend (oh, another one), to the over the top theatre producer who veers all over the place in his attempt to put first his beloved wife and then her sister on stage (guess what choices he makes poorly? You got it).

Realising it’s not the first novel is a fairly enlightening step. The pieces of the structure that felt weakest make more sense when you know there’s 2 books dealing with the detail of Harry’s relationship with Tom Waaler and that presumably explain why his boss puts up with him. It also goes a long way towards explaining why his (ex)-girlfriend is willing to consider taking him back in spite of the alcoholism – although it undercuts the bravery of the novel’s unflinching descriptions of it (perhaps all the harsher to me thanks to my recent brush with James Frey).

Still, Devil’s Star was an easy and largely entertaining read, and I suspect I will read more of them. I’ve got some long flights coming up, after all, and I may need to scratch the inevitable itch of having jumped into something halfway through.