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Onyx reviews: The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø

The Redeemer starts off with a series of killing committed by a hit man who has just one more job to do before he can retire. His final target is in Oslo—an officer in the Salvation Army, who he shoots in the middle of a Christmas concert on the busy, snow-covered streets. 

The killer's normal routine is to plan an escape route and head for the airport as quickly as possible after he pulls the trigger. However, nature intervenes in the form of a blizzard, which shuts the airport and strands the killer in Oslo. In a way, he's lucky this happened, as he learns in the news the following day that he killed the wrong man. He takes pride in his job, so he stays in the country to complete his mission, a decision that is complicated by the fact that he has few resources, doesn't speak the language, and the police are closing in on him. He becomes another of the city's homeless, struggling to find shelter against the blistering cold conditions. He's not even sure how he's going to get out of Norway afterwards, but he's determined to execute the contract.

Writers are often at pains to come up with something original to make their villains and heroes memorable. Harry Hole is printed from the same mould as many other lone wolf detectives. He has a drinking problem, problems with authority, a sassy attitude in general, and a long history of messy, failed relationships. Characters such as these need someone to stabilize them. In this case, Harry has Beate Lønn, a female cop with a photographic memory for faces. This makes her invaluable when it comes to looking for potential suspects in hours of surveillance video. However, Nesbø has bestowed an interesting quirk on the killer, too—he has such complete control of his face's musculature that he can disguise himself by rearranging his features at will. This ability, though, is too clever by half. The amount of concentration required to do this seems incredible, especially when it means that the man would have to be constantly shifting his appearance without betraying the fact that he is doing so. Ultimately, this trait isn't essential and is more of a distraction than a contribution to the story.

Harry identifies the assassin as a Croatian, but the police are unable to locate him despite the fact that he is almost certainly still in Oslo. Harry even make an off-the-books trip to Zagreb to track down the hit man's boss and find out who hired them. The solution to the case is convoluted and clever, but not beyond belief. Along the way, there are a number of incidences of extreme violence that will make even the most jaded reader cringe. 

The book feels overlong, but it captures the sense of a snowbound city that is terrorized by a seemingly insane and unpredictable gunman. The fact that a significant portion of the story is told from the killer's perspective adds depth. Once Harry gets to the bottom of the mystery, he comes up with a unique and controversial resolution that has greater impact because readers know the killer. He's not just a face­less, nameless killing machine.

The story delves into the inner workings, politics and history of the Salvation Army, an organization that is probably not very familiar to most readers beyond encounters outside shopping malls at the holidays. The novel also features psychological analysis of sexual perversion. The prolog alludes to a sexual assault at an Army camp twelve years earlier, but the identities of the perpetrator and the victim are not revealed. One of the book's strengths is the way Nesbø plays with identity and readers' assump­tions. 

The novel also features a significant subplot involving a case of police corruption that Harry exposed in earlier books in the series. Not everyone in the department is happy that Harry caused their dirty laundry to be aired in public. Harry also suspects that he didn't get to the absolute bottom of the case. If he turned up a prince, then there must be a king or queen somewhere.

The Redeemer feels like a prequel, but it was never intended as such. The Harry Hole novels were released in chronological order in Norway, but later novels came out in English before some of the earlier books, some of which still aren't available in English. It can be disorienting for readers who have seen Hole through his departure from the police department to find him back at his desk as if none of the events of The Snowman and Phantom have occurred.

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