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Book review of "The Devil's Star," by Jo Nesbo

By Patrick Anderson
Monday, March 15, 2010; C03

THE DEVIL'S STAR

By Jo Nesbo

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Harper. 452 pp. $25.99

"The Devil's Star" is the third of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo's novels about the alcoholic Oslo detective Harry Hole to be published in this country. Reviewing "The Redbreast" a few years ago, I said that it ranked with today's best American crime writing.

This new arrival, first published in Norway in 2003, reinforces that view. "The Devil's Star" is a big, ambitious, wildly readable story that pits the protagonist against a serial killer and an enemy within the Oslo police department. The novel has its flaws, but for most of the way it's compelling.

Harry Hole -- not the most inspired moniker in all crime fiction -- can be compared to the early, hard-drinking, rebellious Harry Bosch of Michael Connelly's series, and Connelly has been generous in his praise of this Norwegian. But Nesbo's novels are both less focused and more expansive than Connelly's; he's willing to slow the crime-solving process to introduce strange characters and odd corners of Oslo. In this he sometimes recalls Ian Rankin's John Rebus novels with their rich, far-flung portrait of Edinburgh.

But Nesbo always returns to the talented, tormented Hole. We flash back to traumatic scenes from his childhood, and then forward to his present-day nightmares and hallucinations and to his drinking, always to his drinking. Harry is the kind of alcoholic who wakes up in the morning wanting a drink, who always knows where the nearest bar is but can't always remember which bars have banned him. He's losing the woman he loves because of his drinking and would have long since lost his job but for an almost mystical ability to solve crimes that baffle everyone else.

In this novel, a serial killer is on the loose. We're told they're rare in Norway and are viewed as an American disease. This one kills women, cuts off one of their fingers and leaves a tiny red diamond with their bodies. As Harry struggles with this mystery, he's also doing battle with a colleague who seems determined to corrupt or kill him.

It's a complex plot, one that will have you scratching your head from time to time, trying to remember who did what to whom. The pieces fit together in the end, but I have two reservations. One is that when the serial killer is unveiled, he proves to have a modus operandi that Agatha Christie introduced in "The A.B.C. Murders" more than 70 years ago.

Of course, this might be unfair and pedantic; plot-wise, there's not much new under the sun in crime fiction. It's characterizations, sophistication and levels of violence that have changed dramatically since Christie's day. But my other complaint is more serious: It's another hoary tradition that the villain gets the hero in his clutches and then proceeds not to kill him but to prattle on until help arrives. Nesbo manages thus to save Hole not once but twice near the end of this novel. That's at least once too often.

Still, it's a novel worth reading, for its characters, for the quality of its writing and for its wealth of detail. Nesbo is a rock musician as well as a novelist, and he offers asides on figures as diverse as Duke Ellington and Iggy Pop. He does fine things with relatively minor characters, too. One murder victim is given five vivid pages of life before she meets her fate.

Nesbo also brings to life a burly theatrical director who was the husband of one of the victims. He was directing her in a new production of "My Fair Lady," and he hastily arranges for his wife's less talented younger sister to replace her. Hole and his girlfriend attend the premiere in one of their attempts at reconciliation. We also meet a woman who in her youth was impregnated by a Nazi officer and in her old age becomes an improbable but important figure in the serial-killer mystery.

The character I'll remember longest is a young woman who's really just a throwaway. Hole, desperate for a computer, knocks at random on her dormitory door. He's too frantic to notice that she's wearing no pants. She says that maybe she ought to apologize because her room's a mess but, "Hope you don't mind if I don't give a damn." She gets the mistaken idea that he's interested in sex and confides that she only does that on weekends, then she proceeds to dress, "sniffing a sock before she put it on." That is, in its perverse way, lovely. I'll remember that girl sniffing her sock the way I remember certain desolation-row denizens of Dylan's early songs. For moments like that, we can forgive a novelist much.

Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for The Post.

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