Years ago, when the Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo was gaining international acclaim, I had only praise for “The Redbreast” and “The Devil’s Star,” the third and fifth novels in his series about the detective Harry Hole. But his eighth installment, “The Leopard,” clocking in at more than 500 pages, was “a bloated, near-total disaster,” I wrote. “Reading it, I came to imagine myself trapped in a vast, fetid swamp from which I might never emerge.”
Those, I thought, would be my last words on Nesbo. He would go his way, and I would go mine, to our mutual relief. But such are the vagaries of the book-review business that I now find myself addressing his 14th novel, “Midnight Sun,” and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it.
In part, that’s because it’s a compact 273 pages. It tells a simple story — in the best sense of the word — and tells it well. Unlike thrillers that deal in incomprehensible plots and cheap thrills, this is the believable, focused story of a young man trying to escape the consequences of crime and facing hard choices about love, religion and life itself.
At the outset, Jon Hansen steps off a bus outside a small town in the far north of Norway, near the Arctic Ocean. He’s a likable, nonviolent hashish dealer from Oslo who has angered a big-time drug lord and is running from hired killers. He arrives carrying a gun he doesn’t know how to use and finds an isolated cabin. He tries to avoid the locals but nonetheless becomes infatuated with Lea, the daughter of the town’s minister. Ten years earlier, at 18, she was forced to marry a brute who had raped and impregnated her. He’s a fisherman, now missing at sea and possibly dead.
Lea, her father and her 10-year-old son belong to a zealous religious sect. Her son eagerly informs Hansen that he’ll burn in hell for all his smoking and moonshine-drinking and his indifference to religion. Lea is kinder but no less devout. Still, an attraction arises between her and Hansen. Nesbo describes her affectionately: “Her hand was firm and warm, like a smooth, sun-warmed stone.”
But the question of religion won’t go away, and Nesbo examines it from several points of view. Hansen admits, “I didn’t believe in life after death, but I did believe in death after life.” Lea’s father confesses to moments of doubt but holds fast to his faith. Lea insists she can never reject her religion and go off with a drug dealer, yet she gives him hope when she declares her belief in “people’s capacity for goodness.”
As a young man, Nesbo lived in this desolate part of Norway — this land of the midnight sun — and he describes it well: “A silent emptiness, a reticent relentlessness. Even the greenery of summer held a promise of harder, colder times that would try to pull you down, and which would win in the end.”
Killers arrive from Oslo. Hansen’s situation seems impossible — gunmen closing in, his romance hopeless — and he’s close to suicide: “I believed in a nine-millimetre bullet at a thousand kilometres an hour. And that life was the time between the moment when it left the barrel of the pistol and when it tore through your brain.”
Still, best-selling authors rarely let suicide stand in the way of a dramatic showdown, so we read on to see whether Hansen can outsmart the killers and win the woman he loves.
The reception of this book will be interesting. Last year, Nesbo published “Blood on Snow,” a shorter novel about another young man fleeing the wrath of an Oslo drug kingpin. That novel left some readers yearning for the more extravagant thrills of his Harry Hole series. Certainly the Hole books, at their best, have been excellent. But it’s good to see Nesbo apply his talents to something more modest, but no less admirable, such as “Midnight Sun.”
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Jo Nesbo. Translated from the Norwegian by Neil Smith
Knopf. 273 pp. $23.95