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Onyx reviews: Cockroaches by Jo
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/26/2013
Though only recently published, Cockroaches is the second Harry Hole
novel, released in Norway in 1998. Therefore, readers must put aside just about
everything they know about Harry. At this time in his career, he's coming off a
successful murder investigation in Australia, but he's not the serial killer
expert that appears in the later books. He's a raging drunk, which plays an
important part in his being selected to go to Thailand to investigate the murder
of the Norwegian ambassador, who was killed in a seedy hotel with a reputation
for hosting prostitutes.
He is expected to walk a delicate line, working in a
foreign country on a case with diplomatic implications. Harry isn't exactly
known for his diplomacy, but the higher-ups who hand-picked him for this task
don't expect much from him. They hope he'll fall prey to the many
temptations Thailand has on offer, spending his limited time there so
drunk that he won't make any progress on the case, but neither will he do any
damage. They don't want to draw undue attention to the murder and its tawdry
The ambassador himself ended up in Thailand more as an exile than as a
reward. Elements of his personal life make it prudent for him to be dispatched
to the remote country. He's a close friend of the Prime Minister of Norway, so he
can't simply be fobbed off. His posting is a simple expediency, and his murder
threatens to bring to light some unsavory details.
Harry is a fish out of
water in Bangkok, a busy city that is a constant din of activity. He doesn't
speak the language and not everyone he deals with can even speak English, let
alone Norwegian. The Thai police are happy to have him along as part of this
sensitive investigation—he would be a convenient scapegoat if things go
sideways. However, he defies expectations and becomes instantly sober before
departing on this mission. Despite his many shortcomings, Harry is apparently a
superhero in terms of his control over his addictions.
He's not dealing with a
serial killer this time, but his adversary is much cleverer than it might seem
at first glance. There are more killings, but these are done to cover up the
original crime or to create false directions for the investigation to follow.
Harry meets up with several other members of the small Norwegian community in
Thailand, but also encounters some of Bangkok's most ferocious criminals. NesbÝ
provides an outsider's glimpse into life in the noisy, smelly, overwhelming
country, but it's not likely the Thailand Board of Tourism will seek his
assistance in writing promotional copy. His description of the oppressive
traffic and climate makes it an unlikely destination for a casual tourist, and
the book comes back again and again to the country's reputation as a popular sex
Family plays a part in the proceedings, on both sides of
the case. The ambassador's wife is burying whatever grief she may be
experiencing over his death in drink, and his flirtatious teenage daughter has
Harry ducking her calls. Harry, on the other hand, is dealing via long distance
with his younger sister, who has Down's Syndrome and was recently raped. He
wants to pursue the culprit, she simply wants to forget about it.
early entry in the series, NesbÝ is still finding his way as a writer, but he
does a good job of creating an interesting array of characters, from the
Norwegians living in Thailand to the Thai police who collaborate with Harry. The
plot becomes much more complicated than is perhaps necessary toward the end, and
there's no shortage of red herrings and false paths. Since Harry alludes to his
adventures in Thailand in future books, it's good to finally get to see what he
is talking about, and to see him at an early stage of his evolution.
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