Book: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø

Good detective novel that takes a little while to get going

August 27, 2011

Jo Nesbø

The Redbreast

Transl. Don Bartlett

Harper, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-06-113400-5

521 pages


Jo Nesbø (pronounced approximately “Yo Nesboo”, I think) is a Norwegian author and his book The Redbreast is the third of (so far) nine novels in which the main character is Harry Hole, a detective with the Oslo police department. Harry is a brilliant detective, but he’s also a depressed alcoholic who’s bad at relationships. (Talk about Norwegian stereotypes!)

The action of The Redbreast takes place in two threads. One is present-day (well, turn of the twenty-first century) and the other is in 1940s. The thread from 1940s concerns some Norwegian soldiers who, following the German invasion of Norway early in the second world war, were fighting alongside Germans against Soviet troops.

The book begins with a short chapter in which Harry Hole must decide whether to shoot someone in ambiguous circumstances and under considerable time pressure. There follows a short chapter in which he testifies in the trial of a skinhead. Then there follows another short chapter in which an older, unnamed man learns that he has terminal cancer. After that there’s a short chapter that centers on a slick and vain official from the Norwegian foreign ministry. And then there’s one about someone named Daniel who has a somewhat hallucinatory experience.

With chapter six, we get something recognizably like a detective novel with Harry Hole in it. But then, pretty quickly we get four chapters set in the early 1940s followed by one contemporary one set at the Norwegian foreign ministry. With chapter fifteen (p. 80) we’re pretty much on the track of a detective novel.

It’s a perfectly reasonable authorial technique to introduce characters and plot elements in apparently unrelated situations and allow their relevance to the plot and the connections between them to become become clear as the narrative progresses. But Mr Nesbø takes that technique to something of an extreme here.

Make no mistake: a good detective novel does rise from these parts. Events that took place in the 1940s are relevant to a series of present-day murders that are being committed with an unusual rifle.

But people mainly read detective novels for entertainment and a reader might grow a trifle impatient early on, looking for the detective novel that’s promised. In addition, it can certainly be a pleasure for a reader to make connections between events where no connection has yet been explicitly mentioned by the author. But asking a reader to do too much of that makes reading a novel closer to work than a reader might like.

I enjoyed The Redbreast, and the Norwegian setting was exotic enough to me as an American to add to the pleasure. But I wouldn’t argue too much with someone who told me that they had given up on the book early on.

Mr Nesbø is only moderately well served by his translator, Don Bartlett. The Norwegian national holiday is May 17 (Syttende Mai). Mr Bartlett sometimes refers to it as May 17 and sometimes as Independence Day. Someone who didn’t know that they were supposed to be the same thing could easily become a bit confused. It would also be more exact to call it Constitution Day. There’s also:

    His fingers found the butt of his service revolver, a .38 caibre

    Smith & Wesson, six shots. In his belt had had two additional

    magazines.... (p. 7)

I suppose that that mistake might be in the original, but I rather doubt it.

And I strongly suspect that the title of part one, “Earth to Earth”, would be more idiomatically rendered as “Dust to Dust”.