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Onyx reviews: Cockroaches by Jo NesbÝ

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 circumstances.

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 tourism destination.

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.

In this 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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