Another chilling thriller from the Jo Nesbo stable, not merely for the title alone. The Snowman is the best yet in the Harry Hole series, where the flawed yet mercurial detective applies the brilliance of his mind to melting the most formidable of icebergs.
As ever with Harry “the thought of a drink came from nowhere”. Alcohol is his nemesis: not exactly a bête noire, he is too enamoured to it for that description to work. The juice is the only adversary ever to have won every battle with him. “Christ how he needed a drink. Just one to take the edge off the pain, off this day, off this night.” While Harry might always be willing to give people “another chance to wind up on his blacklist”, the booze doesn’t mind how he feels about it as he will remain a perennial customer, regardless.
Harry and Rakel are no longer an item. She has moved on and into the life of another, Mathias, to whom she will will be married later in the year. His expertise becomes crucial as the narrative rolls from murder to murder and suspect to suspect.
By this point if the reader is surprised at what Harry brings to his line of duty they alone carry the can, seeming susceptible to goldfish syndrome – perpetually condemned to forget that they swallowed the same thing just six seconds earlier. This is the seventh in the series. Harry Hole should by now be an open book.
The story opens up in 1980. Sara Kvinesland goes to visit her lover for a final tryst as he is about to relocate. On her return her young son reveals something to her about a snowman and predicts their own demise.
24 years later Birte Becker fails to return home. The ground lies covered with a blanket of snow from the first fall of the year. A child wakens to discover his mother is not at home, her scarf flutters around the neck of a snowman in the family garden, not built by someone in the household.
By that point the investigation switches back to a Snowman related death eight years earlier. Then the investigating cop, Detective Rafto, mysteriously vanished during the course of the investigation in circumstances that were never explained and never look like being explained as Rafto is still missing. The one tenuous thread is that both women had the same doctor. Not much to go on.
As the investigation progresses Hole is stretched like never before. He is primus inter pares in the Oslo Police Department in terms of solving murders but this time the killer is more challenging than before. Clever and adaptable he will change the modus operandi in an instant to throw his pursuers off the scent. Harry's mind is forced to dig deep in order to bring the curtain down on what is now a spate of killings which had been going on for at least a decade. It would always start out in the same manner: women would inexplicably go missing just as the first snow arrived on the streets of Oslo. As the investigation progresses it becomes evident that the women had all been involved in secret relationships outside of marriage, the result of which children are born with a hereditary disease.
In his pursuit of the Snowman he comes across a self portrait of Frida Kahlo; “a woman who suffered, Harry thought.” There are quite a few portraits of Kahlo in this house, my wife being a huge admirer. Hole doesn't come across as a campaigning feminist, just someone who deals with so much violence against women in the course of his duty, invariably inflicted by men.
Assisted by a no nonsense female detective, Katrine Bratt, who immediately gels with Harry because she has little difficulty seeing what he does: a serial killer - who is also primus inter pares - is stalking the streets. Harry is determined not to despair or make excuses. As ever, cynical about police bureaucracy he caustically remarks, “I’ve thought about how we’ll catch this guy, not how I’m going to justify not catching him.”
For some reason I worked out who the perp was early into the story. Saying "worked out" isn’t exactly true. It was more a guess.
There is a great philosophical turn of phrase which makes the book memorable for it alone. More like Camus than Nesbo, one of the characters asks "what is worse? Taking the life of a person who wants to live or taking death from a person who wants to die?"
With that tantalising invitation to ruminate, pick up the trail in this brilliantly worked novel and see where on the wintry streets of Oslo, the trail leads you. If you like your crime fiction to send a chill down your spine as you peer into the mind of a serial killer, this is it.
Jo Nesbo, 2017. The Snowman. Vintage. ISBN-13 : 978-1784704759
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