Book Review: The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbø

The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbø, translation from Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Harper. Crime/Suspense. Paperback. 2000. $8.

I’ve been reading a number of crime/suspense fiction over the last few years. Science fiction and fantasy novels still outnumber crime/suspense novels, but the latter is growing by leaps and bounds. The scope of authors I have read is narrow. I could count the diversity of crime authors I read on one hand, perhaps. Most of those authors are North Americans, U.S. authors. As expensive as paperbacks are these days, I find trusting new authors challenging. And as I have noted in other reviews, I am firmly in the tangible book cohort. My Kindle sits idle in spite of having about two dozen e-books loaded. Of those two dozen e-books, about four have been read.

I like to set forth a few credentials as I am always tentative about writing reviews. “Why should I listen to anything this guy has to say about a book?” is a thought that crosses my mind every time I type. A little self-doubt pushes me to provide a little back story. I’ve got a few hours in English, and more than a few hours spent in libraries, and I read and write. Plus, I write to help people better appreciate the books they read, whether or not I have read the same book. The notions I endeavor to promulgate should be fair for any novel.

If you are on Twitter, follow people who promote good, thoughtful ideas. Follow authors, writers, essayists, publishers, and agents. Read their comments, check out their web sites. There is a world of good ideas, hints, and cautionary tales available on the Internetz.

In reading The Redbreast, I was struck with the sense European suspense/crime fiction writers pour considerably more history and depth into their writings than American authors, with a few exceptions. For instance, some those who have read Steig Larsson “Millenium” series of which the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was the first installment, may have been bored to tears by the depth and breadth of historical background provided within the series. From personal experience, I know several people who gave up on reading the series purely because of the amount of detail Larsson wove into his stories. Part of me also says these folks don’t have the attention span or imagination to cope with the substance of these novels. Kind of like the “just tell me what I need to know” -type of thinking pervasive in education today. I personally find these novels fascinating because of the depth and scope of details, as if I was reading historical documents, not the threads of thoughts brought together on the loom of a word processor.

When I thought about this idea of a difference between European authors and U.S. authors, more examples came to mind. Not only Steig, but Henning Mankel creates a robust historical background against which the drama of his novels unfold. Nothing ever seems to be simple, or take only take place from “this day forward,” and the characters motivations are not driven by events from a few years ago. No, European authors, at least the ones I am familiar with, lay a very elaborate foundation for motivation in the past and build forward into today and tomorrow. Next time you pick up a crime/suspense novel keep my comment in mind. I’d like to know whether you agree, or not.

As I said, though, some of my favorite U.S. authors also build elaborate histories. James Lee Burke is a good example. In his Dave Roubicheaux novels, set around New Iberia, Louisiana, history is inescapable. People still live in the days of slavery, of difficult and hurtful race relations, of sharecropping, and chain-gangs. Today, people are poor, drugs are rampant, and the etouffee is hot and delicious.

The Redbreast was written in 2000. I’m sorry; I’m just getting around to discovering Jo Nesbø. Turns out he has been writing in Norway for almost two decades and his books are now finding an audience in the U.S. This is Jo’s third Harry Hole novel. I’m going to have to find the first two. That should be a big hint how I feel about this novel.

The mystery begins in World War II, along the German-Russian front. A few thousand Norwegians have taken up arms with the Germans to protect their homeland from the Bolsheviks. Conversely, some Norwegians fought with the Russian army to protect Norway from the invading German Wehrmacht. On occasion, some Norwegians fighting on the German side would defect to the Russian army. On a side note, World War II is a fascinating study. Much history, especially Russian history, still has yet to see the light of day.

NPR recently ran a story about female fighter pilots flying for the Russian Army. The Germans never allowed their women to fly or fight. The Russians, honestly, were fighting for their lives and had little choice but to enlist all able-bodied people. Early in the novel, we learn soldier, Edvard Mosken was fighting the Russians from a trench.

The Russians seemed to have run out of bombs. The latest thing he had heard was that they had equipped pilots with hand grenades, which they were trying to lob into the trenches as they flew over.

Americans are familiar with stories of World War II, as told from the Western Front viewpoint. We tend to be fairly ignorant of the Eastern Front, the German-Russian front. Edvard relates some of these details from the German perspective.

The whole autumn had been one long series of depressing reports of losses and retreats all along the Eastern Front. The Russians had recaptured Kiev in November, and in October the German army had narrowly avoided becoming surrounded north of the Black Sea. … Now the Ivans [Russians] had managed to assemble a whole army around the Kronstadt Fort in secret, and according to reports Katusha cannons were tirelessly bombarding German positions.

History and geography presented in a few mere sentences establishing a connection between events in the past with murder in the present.

Jump forward to Norway, today. Someone has managed to smuggle a rare, high-powered rifle in Oslo, and not for hunting. The Märklin rifle is purported to be a very large, heavy, and large caliber weapon whose initial purpose might have been as a 19th century elephant gun. The weapon uses a large 16mm cartridge, unique among most rifles, even today. During World War II, a small contingent of men was trained in on hills on the French-German border to put the weapon to use as a sniper rifle. Detective Hole traces the geography of the weapon’s route from a dealer in Johannesburg, South Africa to the ports of Oslo, where the trail goes cold. In conducting some background research on the weapon, I have no idea whether the rifle is real or simply a plot device of Nesbø. Some sources seem to suggest the Märklin is a myth; other sources indicate the rifle is so rare as to escape the notice of the Google. Knowing if the rifle was legit or not would be nice; the rifle ammo was a primary clue in helping set Hole on the path of an assassin.

Harry travels to a container port in Bjorvika, retracing the steps of the Märklin’s movement. In walking through the port, Harry observes considerable geography.

He walked between the containers piled up like gigantic Lego bricks in the sun, casting jagged shadows on the tarmac. The letters and symbols declared that they came from such distant climes as Taiwan, Buenos Aires and Cape Town.

I like the discussions characters in well-conceived novels have with each other. I suspect these conversations stem from real-life conversations author have with people who provide some of the back story details. Here is an example.

“You seem keen to warn us against today’s neo-Nazism?”

“Not to warn, I am merely pointing out some historical parallels. It’s a historians duty to uncover, not to judge … The job of the historian is primarily to find the historical truth, to look at what the sources say and present them, objectively and dispassionately.”

Some might balk at the ramifications surrounding the word, “truth.” What is truth, especially when history is involved? Each side in a conflict has their own cultural or respective truth. Thus, truth is a muddy proposition. A better word which I have come to appreciate when it comes to history, the job of historians is to “referee,” to be caretakers of historical information. Historians would then leap into action to referee details when politicians, pundits, etc., cherry-pick their information in support of a disguised bias.

Obvious geography begins nearly every chapter, though. Many authors use this technique, to come right out and tell your readers where the action is taking place, particularly if action jumps geography and time. In “The Redbreast,” most  chapters begin with a geographical location, Leningrad (Russia), Oslo (Norway), Gronland (a part of Oslo), Vienna (Austria), Bjorvika (Norway), and a few other locales in Norway. We are also given a small map at the onset of the novel.

My opinion is Jo is a strong writer. When reading Jo’s books, bear in mind these are translated from the Norwegian into English. I’ve read reviews of other Nesbo books which pick apart plot gaps. Late in this novel, Harry is fairly certain why people have been killed, the motivation, and the fatal intent of the killer. He asks for a “Smith & Wesson” revolver, and in return in given a revolver and “spare clip.” That is a pretty glaring error; anyone who has handled a weapon would know the difference between a clip and a cylinder. But, perhaps the Norwegian word when translated to English was lost in translation. But, in using Google Translate, I think not. The lapse doesn’t undermine the story, though, but such a detail should have been discovered in proofing/editing.

.50cal round on far left, .22cal on far right. NATO round 2nd from right.

.50cal round on far left, .22cal on far right. NATO round 2nd from right.

Also, a Google Search did not reveal an actual Traitors Archives housed in Austria, or anywhere else for that matter. There are World War Two archives in many European countries, though. In doing a little background work, “quislings” are still anathema throughout Europe, people who betrayed their country to work for Germany. In fact-checking works of fiction – they are works of fiction, right? – so fact-checking is bound to result in numerous errors, omissions, fallacies, myths, and simple contrivances. On one hand, I fall into the belief system the author has created, on the other hand I feel lied to because the details have no basis in fact, like the idea of the Märklin rifle, or the existence of a Traitors Archives. By no means is my knowledge of World War Two encyclopaedic but I do have a decent working knowledge of the conflict; I’ve literally been studying World War Two since the 5th grade. A 16mm round is almost unheard of in a WW2 sniper rifle. A round like this is more of an anti-tank round. 16mm is more than 1/2 an inch; if you can imagine a cartridge about 1/2″ in diameter, that is a giant cartridge. The grain size of the bullet would be enormous even by modern standards. The Barrett varieties of U.S.A. built sniper rifles use a .50cal round, which is a 12.7mm round in metric. During World War Two, common anti-tank rifles used 7.96mm rounds, designed to penetrate armor, bounce around inside in the tank, and hopefully disable or kill the driver. Some rifles did high damage to the wielder due to force of recoil, breaking or damaging shoulders and collarbones. They were not popular weapons to fire. To mount one against a shoulder meant the person firing the rifle would need some serious ibuprofin later, and maybe a shoulder sling. And the rifles were meant to fired prone, not standing nor kneeling.

Sometimes, we should be cautious by digging too deep into the details of the worlds our authors create. Mr Nesbo, I am sure, has grown as an author since the release of “The Redbreast.” He could be more aware of his audience, how people spend time researching plots details (like me), and has since decided to devote more time to editing for plot elements. “The Redbreast” was still a fine detective novel because the plot revelations do not depend on any stretch of the imagination, no suspension of reality, for the resolution of the case. Jo also establishes another nefarious character embedded within his own department, setting the stage for further drama in future novels.

Sure, I would recommend “The Redbreast” to anyone looking for a more cerebral, character-driven, crime/suspense novel. The book is one of at least three surrounding events beginning in “Nemesis” and later in “The Devil’s Star,” which I have not yet read but need to. I hate it when bad guys hide among the good.

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