Harry Hole gets around. In his first outing as the creation of Norwegian crime fiction writer Jo Nesbo, it is Harry down under on the Australian beat. In Cockroaches the cocktail craving detective is to be found in Thailand where his task is to track down the killer of the Norwegian ambassador to the country. The diplomat was found knifed to death in a hotel in Bangkok. Others would describe it as a brothel.
The Norwegian government is driven more by the need to hush up than by the desire to find the killer. It is concerned that a paedophile scandal might break and envelop it, particularly as it had just emerged from an earlier one. Although he is one of Oslo’s finest detectives, Hole was not despatched to Bangkok for detective purposes as much as diplomatic ones. The hope in Norwegian government circles is that his keen nose will follow the bourbon trail and that he will visit more bars than crime scenes. In Oslo when the decision to assign him the case is made, colleagues have to visit his favourite bar to retrieve him. By sending him off to Bangkok the objective is to sidestep accusations of official indifference. Not that the Thai authorities would be first in line to allege any such thing. They conspired with Oslo to shut down the investigation once it was clear Hole was on the trail of something other than bourbon.
If the late ambassador was involved in some paedophile ring, then that was not his only vice. He was deeply in debt to loan sharks over heavy losses sustained while feeding a gambling addiction. While there are probably more potential murderers than an experienced detective could shake a billy stick at, the choice of murder weapon and peculiarities of it strongly suggest the killer is not a Thai native but one of the ambassador’s compatriots. Still, Norwegians residents in Bangkok are not the only dangerous species. The Thai criminal fraternity is not sensitive towards killing Norwegian cops. All in a day’s work if needs must. With a corpulent killer on hand to flatten anyone who gets on the wrong side of his boss, Harry has an unpleasant experience handcuffed to the bottom of a swimming pool.
The picture painted by the author is of a Bangkok that is sordid and seedy. As with a lot of murder cases, prostitutes are attracted to them “like flies around a cowpat.” And because paedophiles, eager to avoid the shame in a country notorious for its vice industry ,“had become clever camouflage artists” , ripping away the veneer and poking beneath was part of the job.
It is not the type of novel Thai authorities would regard as an ad for their tourist industry: stifling climate, endless traffic jams, corruption, a vicious child sex industry, not to mention murder, scenic routes and landscape might find it hard to establish their reputation.
Having read the first novel there was no reason to expect Nesbo to disappoint. He didn’t. Because both these books were translated much later than subsequent books I was fortunate to have held off until I got the sequence right. some readers have complained about joining Hole on his journey long after it has started. while others were already too familiar with Hole and did not want to go back to his origins as a Nesbo character.
Although the central character he is not without able complements: some of the other players can claim a stake in their own right. The Bangkok female police chief, Liz Crumley is the product of Thai-American parentage. Persistent and helpful to the inquiry, the official reticence is not part of her psyche. The killer and the victim’s wife have their own back story, all of which injects doubt at key points and subverts the reader's confidence that they no longer need Hole to find the perp.
As with The Bat, Hole never seemed to be confronted with the problems thrown up by stranger anxiety in a foreign country. He goes in, makes the necessary contacts, does the job and leaves. How he can be so successful in faraway unfamiliar climes, stirs a longing to see Hole in his home territory. Scandinavian crime fiction should take place in darkened Scandinavia rather than in the super warm climes of Thailand and Australia.