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Onyx reviews: The Son by Jo NesbÝ

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 05/13/2014

Sonny Lofthus was a professional scapegoat. Before he turned eighteen, he paid for his drug habit by confessing to robberies and burglaries he didn't commit. When he grew too old to skate on these minor charges, he agreed to plead guilty to murders in return for an uninterrupted supply of heroin while in prison.

His decline began after his father's apparent suicide. His father was an Oslo police officer who was accused of being a mole for a criminal enterprise. Sonny was crushed when the man's weaknesses were revealed. His mother took her own life in the aftermath and Sonny follows her decline into a world of addiction. 

His worldview shifts when he is told by another inmate that his father was framed and murdered. Like Harry Hole, NesbÝ's series character, Sonny is able to throw off his lengthy and all-consuming addiction at will. He orchestrates a prison escape and begins a vendetta against all those who wronged him and his family. In effect, he becomes the Count of Monte Cristo.

Sonny, aka "the Son," is a beatific character. He is constantly described as "the kid," though he's thirty years old. In prison, he listened to the confessions of others and often seemed to be able to cure them—or at least bless them. He is often silent, perhaps in a drug-induced stupor, which makes him an easy person to talk to. Twelve years of heroin use and imprisonment have not left him a wreck. A former wrestler, he quickly regains much of his previous fitness.

Those who look upon him are captivated or mesmerized. One woman falls in love with him after a very short time, giving the book a love story to play against its brutality. It's hard to not see him as an allegorical Christ figure, especially when other characters are named so obviously—is Simon Kefas supposed to be Simon Peter or Caiphas? There's little doubt who Pontius Parr is meant to represent, but what of Levi Thou? Sonny's drugs were delivered to him hidden inside a Bible. His father sacrificed himself for him and his mother, and Sonny considers himself born again and on a crusade. That's not to say this is a religious book, but NesbÝ is at least playing with Christian mythology.

Sonny declares to one of his victims: "Punishing undesirable behavior is my job." He's judge, jury and executioner. The internet dubs him "The Budda with the Sword." His victims are as diverse as the population of Oslo itself, and the police on his trail can make no sense of the pattern. As in other NesbÝ novels, the Oslo police department and the penal system is rife with corruption, so Lofthus' eyes could be on some very big and important targets, including a shadowy criminal mastermind known as The Twin because he supposedly had his twin brother murdered on the assumption that only one of them could live.

It's a brutal and violent novel, but readers will have no difficulty aligning with Sonny since all the other characters do so easily. Kefas is his nemesis, but he's also an admirable man. He needs money to pay for experimental surgery that would save his wife's eyesight, but he's not corruptible. He's not a rogue cop like Harry Hole, even though he doesn't shy away from playing fast and loose with the rules. 

NesbÝ makes an interesting decision: though Sonny is the protagonist, he is never the viewpoint character. He is seen only through the eyes of others. This means that there are a lot of viewpoint characters, some used only briefly. It also means that Sonny is never observed when he is by himself. When he returns to his empty family home, a boy across the street spies on him with a pair of binoculars, thereby providing readers with access to his actions. Some of the people he kills continue to observe him up to the moment of their last breath. This artistic choice has a reasonable explanation: if readers were privy to Sonny's thoughts, they'd know his master plan. This way, readers can follow him as he wanders from victim to victim without understanding how the puzzle fits together until NesbÝ is ready to reveal it.

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