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Onyx reviews: Phantom by Jo NesbÝ

Harry Hole, a former detective with the Oslo police department and protagonist of The Snowman, has spent the last three years in Hong Kong. He's not quite the man he once was. He may be managing his alcoholism and other addictions, but he's tormented by a past that has left him emotionally and physically scarred. He has a titanium prosthesis in place of one of his fingers. His main reason for the replacement digit is so that he can still chain smoke, although the prosthesis plays a significant part in the story.

He's back in Norway because his former lover's son, Oleg, is in prison for murdering a drug dealer named Gusto, whose body was discovered in a drug den. Though the murder weapon wasn't found, all the other circumstantial evidence points at Oleg, who was arrested near the scene of the crime with Gusto's blood on his shirt and gunshot residue on his sleeve.

Harry considered Oleg his surrogate son when he was with Rakel, so the case is personal for him. Though he has no authority, he behaves as if he was still a member of the department, calling in favors from past associates. Naturally, the investigation brings him and Rakel back into close contact, with possibly predictable results.

Since Harry left Norway, Oleg's life has been in a downward spiral. He got tangled up with drugs. Of late it has been "violin," a new synthetic heroin that has been flooding the streets. Violin has advantages over other street drugs: it lasts longer and there are few overdoses. The drug is gradually pushing its competitors off the market, establishing a monopoly in Oslo's darker corners, of which there seem to be many. Like most crime writers, NesbÝ depicts parts of his native land that few tourists experience.

Lurking behind the scenes is a shadowy figure known to the drug dealers as Dubai, the phantom for which the book is named. Connections from his organized crime network extend into various police organizations and into the political realm as well. A "burner" (called a mole in some circles) inside the organized crime division keeps the criminals current about any threatening investigations, greases some bureaucratic wheels and cleans up messes when they occur.

When Harry starts, he has hold of only a single thread of this complicated tapestry. The more he tugs at it, the more he unravels, making him a target. The plot becomes more and more convoluted and Harry's exploits become increasingly harrowing and incredible. The way he extricates himself from certain predicaments strain at credibility and the story's resolution relies on some rather convenient coincidences. Just when it seems like NesbÝ has pulled off his coup de gr‚ce, he whips out even greater surprises.

One odd aspect of the book is that sections are narrated in first person by Gusto as he dies. Also, there are parts narrated by a rat that encounters Gusto's body. What this is meant to convey remains unclear. Though Gusto obviously knows who pulled the trigger on him from the beginning of the book, he is coy with the details. The book would not have been significantly hampered if these sections had been removed.

Though he has his own unique phantoms, Harry is another in a long line of dark, depressed protagonists, which are almost becoming a stereotype. He's as battered as a punching bag, but still irresistible to women and smarter than the average megalomaniac. He can handle anything thrown at him, dodge bullets, avoid capture by criminals and squads of police alike, sweet talk little old ladies, and sew up his injuries with needle and thread. In short, he's James Bond after being put through the wringer. Still, NesbÝ's novels are sufficiently fast paced and the storylines amply convoluted to keep readers turning the pages until the bitter end.

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