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Originally published Thursday, December 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM


Book review

Best Norwegian crime novel ever?

The publisher of Jo Nesbo's "The Redbreast" reports that it was voted "Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written" by members of Norwegian book clubs. I am not qualified to comment on that judgment, but I will say that this is a fine novel.

The Washington Post

"The Redbreast"

by Jo Nesbo, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Harper, 519 pp., $24.95

The publisher of Jo Nesbo's "The Redbreast" reports that it was voted "Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written" by members of Norwegian book clubs. I am not qualified to comment on that judgment, nor will I venture any dumb jokes about it, but I will say that this is a fine novel, ambitious in concept, skillful in execution and grown-up in its view of people and events. In important ways it's also a political novel, one concerned with the threat of fascism, in Norway and by implication everywhere. All in all, "The Redbreast" certainly ranks with the best of current American crime fiction.

Nesbo's story begins with the fascism of World War II, when Vidkun Quisling's puppet regime ruled in Norway and thousands of young Norwegians volunteered to serve alongside German troops. After the war ended, many of those soldiers who returned to Norway were called traitors and sent to prison, spending the rest of their lives embittered by this "betrayal."

Early in the novel, we see several Norwegians fighting under terrible conditions at Leningrad in 1942-43. Some are killed or wounded, and the fate of others is unclear. These wartime scenes alternate with a present-day plot that shows neo-Nazis in Oslo. One is on trial for a vicious, unprovoked attack with a baseball bat on a Vietnamese restaurant owner. This skinhead makes ugly speeches in the courtroom ("Those of you who are trying to pretend that there is not a racial struggle going on here are either blind or traitors") and is freed on a technicality.

A detective named Harry Hole watches in disgust. A troublemaker, like all good fictional detectives, Harry discovers that someone has smuggled into Norway a Märklin, one of the most powerful and expensive rifles ever made. We know, although Harry does not, that the young skinhead he saw in court helped obtain the rifle for an old man who is dying of cancer. The old man is one of the soldiers from Leningrad. We learn that he is a bitter-end fascist, but we don't know whom he proposes to assassinate. The old man's cancer can be taken as a symbol of Nazism itself, as when he reflects, "He did his best not to think about cells dividing and dividing and dividing." Norway's neo-Nazi cells also are dividing.

Several people are killed. We meet aging veterans of the Eastern Front, but don't know who is the killer. We also meet a police official who secretly works with the neo-Nazis, and a senior official of the Foreign Office who's a closet fascist. This vain diplomat uses his status to force himself on young women, after which he makes I-am-superman speeches to them: "Our lifestyle demands of us that occasionally we have to be brutal, and this brutality requires strength."

My only objection to the book has to do with names. In this case they're Norwegian, but that's not the problem. The problem is that two of the soldiers are named Gudeson and Gudbrand — and, after 500 pages, if you put a gun to my head, I still couldn't tell you which is which.

Two villains, 50-odd years apart, are Brockhard and Brandhaug. Other characters are named Signe, Sindre and Sverre. And there are policemen named Moller and Meirik and an old soldier named Mosken. The mind reels. Having written novels, I know that dreaming up names can drive you nuts, but coping with all-too-similar names can do the same to readers. I think Nesbo could have treated us with a bit more consideration, name-wise.

That aside, "The Redbreast" is an admirable meditation on how, generation after generation, the ugliest human instincts manifest themselves in a criminality that calls itself politics.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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