By Jo Nesbø
Knopf, $25.95; 378 pp.
When Jo Nesbø created Oslo police officer Harry Hole two books ago (The Snowman and The Leopard), the Nordic Dirty Harry clone was an instant hit with readers. Those two books shot up best-sellers lists worldwide. The formula was simple: Harry was an incorrigible cop in a world rife with corruption. Harry’s back in Phantom, and the formula is the same. There’s no reason to change something that works and works well.
Nesbø’s Norway is hardy a quaint Viking homeland of fjords and reindeer-studded tundra. Nesbø’s books are set in a modern Scandinavian country that is trying to grapple with simultaneous influxes of immigrants and illegal narcotics.
Oslo, the capital, is a city with plenty of beautiful thoroughfares, parks and historic structures. It also has plenty of mean streets, drug dens and public areas inhabited by zoned out junkies drawn from a population that has been pampered by a premier nanny state that is oil-rich and unyieldingly Socialist.
Many of his characters make comments about the government and how it exacerbates social problems.
It had been Harry’s job to deal with those problems as a cop.
A throwback to earlier times, Harry is 6’4”, 190 pounds, a blond who wears his hair cut short. He’d be right at home aboard a longship. Physically, he’s imposing, and he is never shy about using his size and strength to extract information when he is on the trail of a murder or drug ring or serial killer. He picks up a lot of trails. That’s his downfall in Oslo — he gets a case whose Phyrric solution results in Harry being banned from ever again being a cop in Oslo. After beating drug addiction, alcoholism and a host of injuries, Harry also must give up the love of his life, Rakel, and her son, Oleg, who is like Harry’s own child, when he is left no choice but to leave Oslo.
At the beginning of Phantom, Harry is in exile in Hong Kong where he collects debts for a businessman. Harry thinks that he is finished with Norway, but then he is called back when Oleg is accused of murdering another young boy in a drug mess gone wrong. Landing at Oslo airport, Harry muses on the new construction he sees.
“It was not the future promises of a new urban development he saw, but the past. For this had been Oslo’s shooting gallery, its dopehead territory, where they had injected themselves and ridden their highs behind the barracks that partially hid them, the city’s lost children. A flimsy partition between them and their unknowing, well-meaning social-democrat parents. What an improvement, he thought. They were on a trip to hell in more beautiful surroundings.”
Nesbø heaps blame everywhere. The city council’s decision to raze the druggie-infested “Plata” was forced by an inability to reach a consensus. “When right-wingers were in power the left was in an uproar. ‘Not enough treatment centers.’ ‘Prison sentences create users.’ ‘The new class society creates gangs and drug trafficking in immigrant areas.’ When the left was in power, the right was in an uproar. ‘Not enough police.’ ‘Access for aslyum-seekers too easy.’ ‘Six out of seven prisoners are foreigners.’”
To Harry, it’s just a matter of bad guys doing bad things. Some are imported bad guys, some are homegrown. All have to be delt with, and Harry is the only one interested in doing that.
Although he is no longer a cop, Harry soon encounters the tour guides for that trip to hell: the mysterious “Dubai” and his Russian underlings who control the flow of a new drug even more potent and addictive than heroin, “Violin.” Oleg, the stepson, is involved in this drug trade as are various cops and politicians in the city’s police department. It’s up to Harry to figure it all out and bring the wrongdoers to justice. He may not be on the force anymore, but Harry is a policeman at heart, and because of his past, he knows most of the players in the drug game. Except the elusive Dubai.
As Harry chases this criminal phantom, there’s plenty of action, violence and a bit of sex. The plot advances at a breakneck pace that will leave readers breathless but unable to stop. The writing is very good, at times lyrical and reminiscent of the great American crime writer Raymond Chandler — “The long, slim, feminine legs of the pine tress rose into the skirt of green that cast hazy afternoon shadows across the gravel in front of the house. Harry stood at the top of the drive, drying his sweat after mounting the steep hills from Holmendammen and observing the dark house. The black-stained, heavy timber expressed solidity, security, a bulkwark against trolls and nature. It hadn’t been enough.”
The plotting is solid, the characters appropriately good or bad or strong or weak enough to tweak readers’ sympathy or resentment. It’s no accident Nesbø’s two previous books were best-sellers, despite their dark tone. Phantom is a best-seller too, but even darker. The book leaves you wondering, “What’s next?”