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Onyx reviews: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø

Reviewers joke that there are more crime writers in Scandinavia than there are criminals. The Snowman is the latest in the burgeoning sub-genre of Scandinavian crime novels popularized by Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who..." series. In fact, the Scandinavians have been writing popular crime fiction for decades. The AMC series The Killing is a remake of a Danish series called Forbrydelsen, which was very well received when it aired in the UK with subtitles. 

There's an old adage that says: when you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. People apply this saying to Detective Inspector Harry Hole of the Olso Police Department. Norway has never had a serial killer (those only happen in America, one character in The Snowman opines) but Hole (pronounced "who-la," though it's difficult to avoid the unfortunate image the English pronunciation brings to mind) has tracked them down in other countries and has received FBI training at Quantico on their mentality and criminology. For that reason, his colleagues are suspicious when he tries to link together a series of murders.

Northern countries are generally associated with snow, so it seems appropriate that Norway's first serial killer should be obsessed with building snowmen near the crime scenes. A mother goes missing without a trace shortly after the city's first snowfall. The only clue is the snowman on the front lawn, adorned with her scarf and hiding another secret within. Harry connects this disappearance to an anonymous letter he received months earlier that alludes to his previous dealings with a serial killer. The note is signed "The Snowman," and his suspicions are apparently confirmed when another woman vanishes—all but her head, which is located atop another snowman. A little research reveals other disappearances over the past several years that seem connected. The lack of any bodies means that many of the cases never progressed beyond missing persons reports, which is why no one noticed the pattern before. The tangled network of crimes that Harry associates with the Snowman includes the 1992 disappearance of a police officer from Bergen who a suspect in some of the crimes at the time.

Once Harry manages to convince his superiors that there may be a serial killer at work, he insists on keeping his group of investigators small and tightly focused. He knows how unwieldy a task force can be—more of a hindrance than a help often—and this way he can control the flow of information and keep the crazies from calling in "tips" that waste everyone's time. He is blessed with a rookie female colleague who is as good at her job as he is, and just as driven. Katrine Bratt is determined to learn everything she can from her new mentor, and at times their relationship is borderline flirtatious.

Nesbø has more in common with Scotland's Ian Rankin than he does with Sweden's Larsson. His series detective has the same tendency to act as a lone wolf when investigating crimes, the same fondness for music and the same trouble with drink as Inspector Rebus, as well as the same existential angst. Harry has little use for most people, yet he pines for his sort-of-ex-wife, Rakel (who has boundary issues of her own), and struggles to maintain a relationship with her son from a previous relationship, who regards Harry as the closest thing to a father he's ever had. Harry's life is as much a mess as his apartment, which is currently under renovation because of a mold infestation. He shoulders the psychologies of the people he hunts and is damaged in the process—emotionally, mostly, but physically at times, too.

Harry and the other characters in the book make interesting observations about their country. For example, some theorize that an inordinately high percentage of Norwegians have different fathers than the ones listed on their birth certificates. Oslo seems as small as Rankin's Edinburgh, a place where there are only two degrees of separation between most people instead of the classic six. The Norwegian attitude toward America also forms part of the subtext, with the stage set for the book's various time periods by the outcome of the appropriate presidential election.

Harry and Katrine try to figure out what connects the disparate assortment of female victims. Despite the "two degrees" observation, there seems to be no overlap in their lives. When Harry and Katrine make their first major breakthrough in the case, it takes the investigation in an unexpected direction. As with many books in this genre, the killer seems to have chosen Harry as his nemesis, taunting him to try harder and instigating a cat-and-mouse game that could be a subliminal cry for help—or just be the actions of a damaged psyche.

The book's 1980 prolog, perhaps long forgotten by readers after the several hundred intervening pages, comes into play again toward the end, providing valuable clues about the killer's identity and motivation. Nesbø does an excellent job of littering his book with red herrings and viable suspects. Harry and Katrine build legitimate and compelling cases against these individuals, only to have the whole house of cards collapse time and time again. And, yet, Nesbø plays it straight with the reader. The perpetrator is in plain sight throughout most of the book. Nesbø does push the snowman metaphor a little hard toward the end when a genetic disease threatens to cause the killer to acquire features reminiscent of his avatar, but that is a small quibble about a book that is so clever, compelling and dramatic.

Jo Nesbø has been writing about Harry Hole for many years (The Snowman is the seventh book in the series), though only a few of those books have been translated into English, and their American release has been out of publication order. Even so, The Snowman can be enjoyed as a standalone thriller. Aspects of the protagonist and various secondary characters might be appreciated more by knowing about their pasts, but someone introduced to the series with this book won't find himself lost.

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