I am quite simply and unabashedly addicted to Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books, a series chronicling the worst luck of the hard luck notorious (former) cop. Available due in great part to the translations of Don Bartlett, who makes sure that nothing is lost in doing so, English readers have been able to avail themselves of one of the finest set of crime fiction works available in any language, one in which each successive volume tops its predecessor. PHANTOM, Jo Nesbo’s latest offering, is no exception; it is his most challenging and complex work to date, a novel that brings Harry so close to his own heart of darkness that it is at times painful to read yet compels one to do so, and as quickly as possible.
"[PHANTOM] is [Nesbo's] most challenging and complex work to date, a novel that brings Harry so close to his own heart of darkness that it is at times painful to read yet compels one to do so, and as quickly as possible."
PHANTOM finds Harry returning to Oslo from Hong Kong, taking a respite from his perfectly legal yet somewhat morally dodgy new occupation to attempt to put things right in his former home. Harry’s stepson Oleg, now 18, has been arrested for the murder of Gusto, a teenage junkie with whom Oleg had gone into partnership. Oleg is almost certainly the doer of the crime and, despite facing a lifetime of incarceration, seems disinclined to putting on any sort of defense. Harry has no clout, being on the police force, yet through a series of connections, old chits and outright blackmail, manages to cobble together an investigation even as his presence and poking about makes him a target for a crime syndicate as well. The main narrative is occasionally the object of an interlude from the dead Oleg, who, in his final moments, describes the events that lead up to his lonely death, bleeding out in a trashed room, with only a rat for witness and company.
The book’s driving force is drugs, or, more specifically, a new designer street drug known as violin, for reasons that become known before the book’s halfway point. It is impossible to read even a page or two, from beginning to end, without Thomas Wolfe’s famous phrase “Oh lost!” coming to mind. Whether or not Oleg is innocent of Gusto’s murder ultimately is beside the point, as it becomes increasingly obvious that Oleg is involved in some very, very bad things. Harry’s recognition of this is one of the most poignant episodes in PHANTOM (or any book, for that matter) that you are likely to read this year, all the more so for its understated presentation.
Along the way, Nesbo presents a series of supporting characters old and new who are just as interesting, if not more so, than the story itself. Harry and Rakel, his former lover, are reunited again by necessity, and take tentative steps toward rekindling their relationship. In the meantime, Harry forms an odd and dysfunctional but somewhat effective alliance with Simonsen, Rikel’s new boyfriend and Oleg’s attorney, as both men try pushing water uphill in an attempt to exonerate the young man. There is also Cato, an extremely creepy street priest who resides in the respectful nooner hotel where Harry has taken temporary lodging, a bunch of cops who are bent to varying degrees, and a very, very bad group of Russian thugs. Each and all are involved as the sleek chassis of the plot heads toward the precipice of its climax; the answer to who is driving, who is pushing, and who will go over the edge by story’s end will keep you up reading for at least one night, maybe two.
Comparisons of PHANTOM with “Breaking Bad” are inevitable but simplistic, though both share the overall subject matter of drugs as well as an occasional gloriously dark humor. However, there are more differences than similarities between the two, and each can be enjoyed on its own terms. As far as PHANTOM is concerned, the haunting ending will leave new and old readers alike hungry for the next installment. If you don’t read another book this year, please read this one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 12, 2012