Friday, 23 September 2011

Book Review – The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

The first thing that catches the eye is what appears to be a sticker on the book's cover; the same sticker, in a variety of colours, appears on the cover of other books by Nesbo. On closer inspection, and to my disappointment, the 'sticker' is printed and could not be pealed off.

The 'sticker' makes a bold claim. It reads: 'THE NEXT STIEG LARSSON' INDEPENDENT. A claim that invites comparison; and such comparisons may not always be flattering.

By way of investigation lets take what, at first, seems a wild detour. Marco Aurelio Zani de Ferranti (1801 – 1878) was a nineteenth century classical guitarist and composed many likeable works for his instrument. (Simon Wynberg provides a useful biography of this musician.) Zani de Ferranti knew the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini and made use of this association. He was one of a number of guitarist – and other instrumentalist who did a similar thing – who labelled himself as a sort of Paganini of the guitar. Zani de Ferranti had more claim than many to this title having a testimonial from Paganini himself.

Zani de Ferranti was a good performer and composer; there's no doubt about this; his music deserves a place in the repertoire. And, in fact, it deserves to be performed more often than it is currently. But will his music ever replace more established classics? No; definitely not. The comparison with Paganini tells us something: Zani de Ferranti was good, even very good, he's well worth listening to. But he was never as good as Paganini. Given a choice Paganini wins every time. There never was a time when Paganini would have been called: the Zani de Ferranti of the violin.

So does labelling an author the next Stieg Larsson have a similar, detrimental, meaning?

Another oddity is the first part of Stieg Larsson series of Millennium novels was first published in Swedish in 2005 – though Larsson had earlier published non-fiction works. In the case of Jo Nesbo his first published Harry Hole novel was in Norwegian in 1997. So who's the next who? It does not quite add up. I'm afraid such details irritate me, maybe that's irrational, but somewhere there's a feeling of being conned. And that's not a good feeling when on the first page of a new, to me at least, author.

Never mind: never judge a book by the publisher's hype; nor, indeed, it's cover. Lets, at long last, take a peek inside.

Throughout reading this book I could not get used to the lead character's name. Harry Hole, Harry bloody Hole; it just sounds so prosaic, so dull, I could not take it seriously; Ugh and double Ugh. Surely Nesbo could have invented something better than this nomenclature monstrosity; Harry Hole, Harry bloody Hole; or does it sound less awful in Norwegian? I doubt it, I very much doubt it. Just to list a few other fictional detective's names (in the loosest sense of the word: detective): Philip Marlowe, Kurt Wallander, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes. Now, they don't sound too bad, in fact they sound reasonable. In fact, off hand, I cannot think of another fictional detective's name that does not have some kind of mystic to it. It does not mean the associated stories are all great fiction, far from it, or they're stuff worth reading; just the name's do capture something. But this one doesn't, it's so nauseating; Harry Hole, Harry bloody Hole; Ugh.

On a more positive note Nesbo's writing style makes for an easy read. The story rips along, it's certainly a page turner. Several times I found myself late because I had decided to read just a few more pages, or read on to the end of the section. The problem comes when you reflect on what you've just read. Then a slight air of disillusionment sinks in, you wonder how the events described relate to what you previously read, often it's hard to work out. Then you wonder about the plot twists, aren't they somewhat bizarre and unrealistic? Why did that character apparently spring from nowhere? Why did they trundle off to some significant location? Well why? Was it no more than a hunch? We're simply not told. It's like tucking into a meal with relish; and then wondering: what was it I just ate?

With Stieg Larsson's novels the crimes and injustices grow out of the very fabric of the characters lives; indeed out of very fabric of society itself. With Nesbo we have a more standard thriller narrative. A modernised version of Agatha Christie. There's a stable just world into which is thrust a malevolent and murderous element. How this murderous element arose is never explained; it is something inexplicable. When this murderous element is finally exposed then the safe, comforting world returns. What we have is a standard police procedural novel with a bit of snow thrown in. Fundamentally it does seem a little conventional and unadventurous. Then it does lend itself more easily to a TV series; maybe that's the reason why.

Early in the book we meet a character without a name – or at least I cannot remember it, and do not want to remember it. This is the mould man who has come to do something vague and uninteresting to Harry Hole's flat. I remember thinking, when this character was first introduced: please no. In fact it was more like: PLEASE NO, NO, NO. Please do not let him be the killer, please do not let him have anything to do with the story. At various points along the way we meet him again, often by proxy, as he tares Harry Hole's flat apart. It appears to be some sort of metaphor; a metaphor for what I do not care. I just hated it. It seemed: irrelevant, stupid, annoying, and totally unbelievable as Harry just handed over the keys of his flat to the hateful man. The novel would have been better if this rubbish had been cut.

There is one other comparison with Stieg Larsson where Nesbo is found totally wanting. Within the Millennium series there is a streak of feminism. (How much positive feminism there is has been debated; but I'll push this question to one side.) This is exemplified with a strong female lead character, most obviously in the character of Lisbeth Salander, and in dealing with the abuse of women. There's none of this in Nesbo. In fact some of the characters seem profoundly misogynist; and those that are not misogynist are blatantly sexist. If there's any message at all in Nesbo it's that women should be faithful to their men; or at least not whores. A message that is, shall we say, somewhat behind the times.

This would not be so bad, after all sexists do exist in the world we live in, if there was some character challenging this point of view – there isn't. Even better if this viewpoint was shown to be counter productive at the level of plot – something along the lines of, maybe, sexist stereotypes leading the police investigation in the wrong direction. Again there's nothing at all remotely like this. If anything the sexist and misogynist attitudes are vindicated. Above all this seems to be a sad reflection of the author's attitudes.

This book is a readable romp and, in the end, the cover statement was an accurate predictor. A reasonable novel, well worth reading, but Stieg Larsson would never have been called THE NEXT JO NESBO. A Zani de Ferranti of a novel.

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