When I was a kid I went through a big mystery faze. I read all the Nancy Drew novels, quite a few Hardy Boys ones and pretty much any other YA mystery story I could get my hands on. Then I stopped reading mysteries for a while until I got old enough to read novels by John Grisham and James Patterson, which I devoured for a few years in high school before once again calling it quits. I discovered, as you do, that most of these novels had a pretty clear formula, and once I figured each one out I was okay with it for a while – sometimes formulas can be comfortable – and then I got bored. It turns out I probably just needed to start reading mystery and detective fiction from other countries. I may have missed the Stieg Larsson frenzy of last summer, but I feel pretty good about Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian crime writer, who's novel The Leopard had me in its clutches for days.
To be fair, I started a bit backwards, because The Leopard is actually the eighth novel in Nesbo's series following Detective Harry Hole of the Oslo police Crime Squad. Harry is one of those characters that you don't like immediately (or, at least I didn't like him immediately), but he kind of convinces you to come around because he's just so interesting. I'm not sure I'd describe Harry as likable, exactly, but he is a character you want to spend time with, which in detective fiction is almost better. He is not jovial or even a hard-ass, he's a full-blown alcoholic caught in a battle between indifference about the job and the desire to catch and punish bad people – in this case, a serial killer.
The novel actually starts out with a murder, and it is one of the most graphic scenes in the entire book (the other comes much later and does not result in death). But Nesbo isn't writing about a twisted sexual predator, so it it isn't that kind of violence. Rather, it's a kind of torture that is primarily psychological. The Leopard is about fear, really, and the kind of people who can stand behind the scenes and watch these murders happen with glee, or perhaps even worse, without caring. The murders are brutal, but Nesbo doesn't dwell on them and we don't spend much time in the head of the killer.
Instead, we follow Harry as he works out the details of the case. Nesbo has created a pretty intricate puzzle in this novel, and the various elements, locations and false starts and dead ends make it very satisfying read. Truly, Harry is the detective here, and you are not four steps ahead of him, which is what I find most maddening in a lot of detective novels – if I can figure out, why can't they? But no, things come nicely together by the end, with only a few intentionally jagged bits remaining.
Some of what makes The Leopard such a compelling story is probably the setting. This is not an inner-city detective story. Half the novel takes place in the mountains and various countryside towns around Oslo, and at least another third takes place overseas in either Hong Kong or Congo. Because, as Nesbo reminds us, there are other things going on in the world besides just this one case. There is, for example, a war going on in Congo that is horrific in scale, and there is poverty, and there are parents and families of the characters that also need attention. The novel is driven by the mystery at its core, but the issues and the personalities and the asides that surround it are what keep it grounded and all the more interesting.
The Leopard is a big book written at a fast pace. The dialogue flows well and, for the most part, Nesbo's choices of Norwegian names and places translate well to English – it seems like a small thing, but being able to pronounce a word in your head as you read means you connect with it better than one you simply look at and skim past. But most importantly, Harry is a detective you believe in. Not in the fairy tale "hero cop" kind of way, but rather in the realistic, proud sort of way. Without giving too much away, you know that he's going to figure things out in the end, it's just a question of at what cost.
by Jo Nesbo
First published in English in 2011 (cover image shown from Random House Canada edition)