The Redbreast – Jo Nesbø, tr. Don Bartlett
I picked as my first book of the new year, a writer who has been reliable to me since I started reading him in 2009. Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast was published in 2006 in the U.S. and translated by the talented Don Bartlett. The series stars Inspector Harry Hole, this is his third appearance in the series since The Bat (UK). Having read all of his recent books, I saved this one for last.
The Redbreast is part historical fiction and part mystery where about half of the story takes place during WWII. The story touches on the troubled past of Norway, the lives of the soldiers and the consequences of their choices made during the war. Some were labeled as traitors and accused of treason and sent to prison. Harry finds himself chasing down wartime ghosts. He finds himself investigating an assassin on some “crusade of vengeance against society.”
In a small, remote, Norwegian town, Harry and his team look into complaints from the locals about someone shooting during a weekend when it’s not even hunting season. The empty cartridges they find are sent to forensics and is found to belong to an unusual weapon: a Märklin rifle.
While Harry may be the star of the series, his co- star in this story is the Märklin rifle. It is another one of the author’s creative inventions. Nesbø is known to create some of the most deadliest weapons in his novels. For fun I should do a post on all of them. If you look up the Märklin rifle, what you will come across is that Märklin is a German company that makes toy trains. In The Redbreast, they also make a hunting rifle that is the weapon of choice for assassins. The rifle uses large-caliber bullets that can leave a big gaping hole. The gun is smuggled into Norway by middleman whose associates are in the upper echelons of power and are apart of an ongoing subplot that continues in the next two books, Nemesis and The Devil’s Star.
The Redbreast is a mystery enveloped inside of Norwegian history and surprisingly, I enjoyed reading it. During WWII, Norway was occupied by the Germans. There were some soldiers who volunteered to fight along with the Nazi’s while some soldiers joined the resistance and fought a losing battle against the enemy. Aside: Nesbø admits that he had relatives who fought on both sides. National leaders fled the country, seeking refuge in London. The events of WWII affected many of the people in Norway and out of this turbulent time period, an ex-soldier who fought in the Eastern front feels betrayed and is on a war path toward what he calls “judgement day.”
The story starts off kind of slow and uses third person pov and flips back and forth between the present and the past. National socialism is said to be re-surging in Norway and are said to be better organised. Harry and his supervisors are tasked with addressing threats of terrorism. The author obscured much of the villain’s character with vague descriptions thereby making it somewhat difficult to figure out the identity of the perpetrator. Going back to reread and armed with the knowledge that I now have, the clues are there. You just have to pay attention. In true Nesbø fashion though, he likes to surprise you with misdirection, red herrings and faux conclusions. Just when you think you had it all figured out, you realize that you were wrong. I was wrong and I wanted to scream because the twists towards the end was just a bit too much for me to take.
I thought the author played a little dirty pool there at the last moment in the big reveal. But he buttressed his denouement with speculation and psychology thanks to the supporting role of criminologist Stale Aune. The revelation was sort of a let down and was quite messy. As I said, I didn’t figure this one out until it was figured out for me. I don’t know what that says about me but that’s usually my experience for most of his novels. This has to be one of the most complicated mysteries I’ve read but this is Jo Nesbø’s terrain. He loves writing complicated mysteries.
I delayed reading this book for so long because I am not all that big of a fan of WW II stories. The author did a good job of recreating the historical time period though and giving us a good sense of time and place (his usual strength). There’s a thread using flashbacks that conveyed many moments of intimacy between two lovers planning their futures together during the war. The past and the present threads eventually connect and aided in the suspense of unmasking a well hidden and determined killer. Another one of this author’s strengths is his continuing to show corruption and politics within major institutions of both government and law enforcement. Another observation is the manipulation of women by men in power. It was very pervasive in here and I’m not sure if his other novels had this element to them. I’m sure they do but I was more aware of it in here than in any of his other novels.
To conclude, I enjoyed this novel – flaws and all and would rank it third after The Redeemer and The Devil’s Star in comparing the strengths of stories. There is much left out about the plot. I’m just giving an overview (albeit a bit too long). If there are readers still out there who have never read Jo Nesbø (who are you? and why?), you can start with this book. The previous two novels had Harry Hole in Bangkok and only the first book, The Bat, has been translated and published but it is not available in the US as I write this. Overall, I’d rate The Redbreast a B+. I thought it did have one inconsistency with one character who went from being a dangerous skinhead to just being a clueless and ignorant one who deserved what he got. The Redbreast is priced at $3.99 at Amazon.
I’d like to belatedly dedicate this review to a reader who the mystery community lost last year – Maxine Clarke. She regularly blogged at Petrona and has several years worth of archives over there. She regularly visited this blog and left comments and welcomed me into the community. Her first comment was on a review I did for The Snowman and her last was on my recent review for Phantom. Maxine had excellent taste in mystery and she was responsible for my discovery of Asa Larsson and many other wonderful writers. Her voice will be sorely missed in the mystery community.
On the personal side, I struggled with this book review as the words just wouldn’t come but I hope to get better. I apologize for any errors or inconsistencies.