By Jo Nesbo
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Knopf. 517 pp. $26.95
“The Leopard” is the fifth of Jo Nesbo’s novels about the Oslo detective Harry Hole to be published in this country. The books have become international bestsellers and have caused Nesbo to be hailed (wrongly) as the new Stieg Larsson. I reviewed two of the earlier books — “The Redbreast” and “The Devil’s Star” — and had only praise for them. Now, alas, I must report that “The Leopard” is a bloated, near-total disaster. Reading it, I came to imagine myself trapped in a vast, fetid swamp from which I might never emerge.
The novel opens with a four-page exercise in horror. A young woman — captive, confused, desperate — is in the grip of a fiendish instrument of torture. As we watch, this device inflicts a terrible death on her. This is a brilliant scene, in its way, but it’s also stunningly sadistic, both in terms of what the killer is doing to the woman and what the author is doing to the reader. Gentle souls, bless them, will throw the book down in disgust, but countless others will push on, lusting for more cheap thrills. They will find them.
“The Leopard” is a sequel to Nesbo’s recent “The Snowman,” in which Hole’s pursuit of a serial killer left him shattered in body and spirit. He has fled Norway, and we catch up with him in Hong Kong, living in a flophouse, smoking opium and dodging gangsters who seek to collect on his gambling debts. He’s found by Kaja Solness, an attractive detective who’s come to bring him back to Oslo to pursue a new serial killer, the one whose handiwork we saw in the opening pages. The cheap thrills begin quickly, as Kaja is menaced by two thugs in the flophouse, only to be saved by Harry. Soon, despite his scars, dissipation and hostility, Kaja cannot but notice “how his smile transformed him, made him human, accessible, boyish.” Ah, yes, our Harry is a sensitive lad at heart.
He agrees to return home when Kaja tells him his father is dying. Serious business, that, but at the Oslo airport, after a customs official with a “latex-clad hand” subjects Harry to the indignity of a cavity search, our hero, pulling up his pants, quips “Was it good for you, too?” My heart continued to sink: another 500 pages of this?
“The Leopard” could have been improved, if not saved, had someone cut a hundred or so pages of its inane chitchat, dumb jokes and pointless memories of people’s childhoods. But even the most adroit editing could not have solved the novel’s worst problem: its elusive plot. The new serial killer is targeting people whose only connection is that for one night they met in a ski lodge. Their deaths are notably gruesome: Two women succumb to the torture instrument, a third is hanged and is so obese that her body separates from her head, and a young man is stuck to his bathtub by Super Glue and left to drown as the water rises. No one could deny Nesbo’s creativity when it comes to homicide. Indeed, when he mentions someone being fed to pigs, we sense homage to Thomas Harris’s “Hannibal.”
There are at least three madmen wandering around in the story, and we have no clue as to which is the killer. Unknown people torture one another. Ghosts speak to us. We struggle to tell Ole Sigurd from Odd Utmo, suspects both. After a seeming eternity of confusion, Nesbo finally has Hole explain what’s going on, whereupon the story advances from incoherent to preposterous.
When Nesbo has squeezed the last ounce of violence out of Norway, he sends Harry and Kaja (whose charms include “piranha” teeth) to the Congo, where we’re treated to scenes of mutilation, rape and genocide. The story goes entirely over the top — over the moon, into outer space — when Harry, having escaped a horrible death by resorting to a bloody act of self-mutilation, races to save two innocents who are about to be tossed into a fiery volcano.
There exists, in the writing of novels, a fine line between ambition and self-indulgence. Nesbo may well have considered this far-flung, far-fetched festival of gore an ambitious work, even as it began to spin out of control. For this reader, “The Leopard” ranks with Harris’s “Hannibal” among the most grotesque thrillers ever put forth by a world-class writer. In the spirit of the season, we can only wish the author a speedy recovery.