Book Review: Nemesis

Nemesis by Jo Nesbø. Harper Fiction. 2002. Translation 2008. Paperback. $8

“A man walks into an Oslo bank, puts a gun to a cashier’s head, and tells her to count to twenty-five. When he doesn’t get his money fast enough, he pulls the trigger. The young woman dies–and two million Norwegian kroner disappear without a trace.”

And so our story opens. And, if this were only the story, the story of the murder of a bank cashier and Harry Hole‘s (Hole is pronounced “Hoe-lay”) persistence in catching her killer, we would have an interesting story.

Jo Nesbø does not write in such simple ways, though. I recently flew to San Diego. The flight magazines in the seatbacks usually have a map of the airline’s routes. Picture the flight lines connecting cities with other cities. Remember the complexity of those maps? Lines which stretched the entire width of the continental United States, and intermediate flight lengths, and shorter flight lengths? Jo is pronounced “Yo,” by the way.

I think Nesbø must use those airline service route maps to develop the plots of his novels. Over the last year or so, I have moved from my traditional science fiction and fantasy milieu into procedural crime fiction. I began with Steig Larsson. He was criticized by reviewers for his highly intricate plots. I’ve read Henning Mankel who write good procedure crime fiction, also set in Sweden. James Lee Burke, who I have reviewed before, sets his stories in southern Louisiana. I’ve read forensic science authors Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell. Not an immensely impressive resume of crime fiction; I would throw James Patterson in the mix, but honestly, his novels do not come close to intricacies I require. I read two of his Alex Cross novels and I am done. Science fiction and fantasy authors, by their nature, have to create intricate worlds, with themes, allegories, and complex plot devices to draw in their readers. We expect those traits. Having spent all of my childhood and the better part of my adulthood reading science fiction and fantasy, I have become accustomed to reading prose which has a high degree of complexity. The above authors (with the exception of Patterson) deliver to my expectations.

NemesisNesbø’s “Nemesis” is probably the most complex procedural crime novel I have read. My opinion may change given enough time, as I only finished his book yesterday. However, I found myself having to re-read passages simply to understand the nuances of actions and details.

The bank robbery is not a bank robbery and a young woman is killed. Identical twin brothers commit a crime and one is caught and one escapes. But, which one killed the police officer and was sentenced to prison and which one got away? Hole killed his lover, or did he? And, what does the jailed twin have to do with her death? A woman commits suicide but on second opinion she might have been murdered by her jealous husband, jealous because she was sleeping with her husband’s brother. Furthermore, why is Hole’s former partner so intent on having Harry arrested for a murder he may not have committed?

Yes, if those details sound confusing you are not alone. Nesbø ties most of these tales together into one mostly complete novel. I say “mostly complete” because one loose end continues into Nesbø’s next novel, The Devil’s Star. Yes, I had to re-read some passages simply to keep my head in the game. Near the middle of the novel, Hole has pretty much solved the bank robbery, or so it would appear. From mid-point on the novel almost begins anew, with the introduction of a new character with a new motivation, and a desire to exact some form of retribution against Hole.

When the novel seemed complete at the mid-point, and new characters were introduced I felt as if one of the cardinal rules of crime fiction had been invalidated, something I will call the “trail of discovery.” The Trail of Discovery means the author leads the reader through a consistent set of rules and parameters for the unfolding of events. Basically, all stories follow this rule. Authors cannot simply build a pattern of evidence and in the last three pages introduce a new character or new plot vehicle which renders all aforementioned clues irrelevant. Halfway through “Nemesis” I felt Nesbø was doing precisely this; what kept me reading was the fact I was only halfway through. Nesbø has an international reputation and I could not comprehend readers would popularize an author who committed egregious plot contrivances. So, I kept reading. And, the plot became for more complicated than I ever imagined. For good reason, too, as the robbery, the murder, the suicide, the murder all fold into one engrossing tale of lies, deception, and murder. Everything a good crime novel entails.

“Nemesis” was my first Jo Nesbø novel. My rule is I give an author who is new to me two chances to impress me and sell me on his/her style and story-telling. “Nemesis” is the second in at least a trilogy of Harry Hole novels, the first being “The Redbreast” and the third, as I mentioned earlier, “The Devil’s Star.” Now, I’ve got to pick up the other two.


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