A cult figure. A “genuine anti-hero; an impossible character yet impossible not to like”.

Random House Canada, 2012
Trans. Don Bartlett

That’s how the author’s site describes Harry Hole, who is at the heart of Jo Nesbø’s popular series.

‘Hole’ is pronounced Hoo-leh, by the way, although the Australians in The Bat repeatedly say “Hole-ee”, for Harry hails from Oslo, Norway.

(And, admittedly, I was simply saying it like the middle of the doughnut, until I heard him interviewed by Harriet Gilbert on the World Book Club, discussing The Redbreast in August 2012.)

He is a solitary, somewhat melancholic figure, who works hard at being a detective and (sometimes) drinks hard too.

“No wife. No children. No dog. All I have is a boss, a sister, a father and a couple of guys I still call pals even though years pass between their calls. Or mine.”

He’s in Australia to investigate the death of a twenty-three-year-old Norwegian woman who had hosted a children’s television program a couple of years ago.

“As usual, it’s all about politics and dosh,” the Head of Crime Squad says. The dosh, in this case, driven by the desire for tourist dollars, thanks to the upcoming 200o Olympic Games in Sydney.

(It’s taken some time for the translation by Don Bartlett to bring the first volume of this series into English. The Bat, like Mankell’s first volume, is, however, at last available.)

Harry’s motivations are slightly different (he doesn’t share this version with his hosts):

“If I manage this without making an arsehole of myself it may open certain possibilities for me back home, I’ve gleaned.”

Nobody is expecting the case to be complicated, but the investigation pulls Harry into unexpected corners (literally and figuratively).

“’Why hasn’t this connection been discovered before? We’re talking about seven murders and forty to fifty rapes with a possible link here.’
Yong Sue shrugged. ‘Rape is unfortunately an everyday event in Australia as well, and perhaps it isn’t given the priority you think it should be given.’
Harry nodded. He felt no cause to swell his chest with pride on Norway’s account.”

Crime fiction provides an excellent opportunity to reflect what Jo Nesbø’s site calls “our globalized modern world”.

Not only are social issues regarding violence against women and sexuality considered, but The Bat also considers the role of Aboriginal people in Australian society, and the different phases and policies regarding their position in the past century; each of these elements plays a significant role in the plot (which is suspenseful, so I’ll avoid details).

One character states: “I belong to the forcibly urbanized generation. After the Second World War the authorities considered they had to change earlier policies and try to assimilate rather than isolate Indigenous inhabitants. They tried to do that by controlling where we lived and even who we married.” It’s stated in a straightforward tone, but is summed up colloquially: “Aboriginals were and have always been Australia’s social losers.”

The title and the segment headings all stem to the culture of various Indigenous peoples which, along with some mythic retellings in the text, contribute substantially to the storyline.

As does the Australian setting, which is also discussed in detail. At first, the sun is shining but, later, as the plot develops, there is a darker side, geographically and psychologically.

“It had become noticeably darker now, and gusts of wind tore in with such force that the eucalyptus trees shook and waved their branches, seemingly intending to detach themselves from the ground and lumber around like John Wyndham’s triffids, brought to life by the storm that was on its way.”

Ultimately, however, the series depends on Harry Hole and his relationships, principally (at this time) work-related.

Through dialogue with a character who has also recently met the detective, there is occasion to offer a summary which works as an excellent introduction to Harry’s perspective on his career.

“You’re a tiny bit damaged every time you unravel another murder case. Unfortunately, as a rule there are more human wrecks and sadder stories, and fewer ingenious motives, than you would imagine from reading Agatha Christie.”

(It’s hard to imagine Harry Hole reading Agatha Christie, but the comparison is likely to catch many readers’ attention.)

“At first I saw myself as a kind of knight dispensing justice, but at times I feel more like a refuse collector. Murderers are generally pitiful sorts, and it’s seldom difficult to point to at least ten good reasons why they turned out as they did. So, usually, what you feel most is frustration. Frustration that they can`t be happy destroying their own lives instead of dragging others down with them.”

Obviously, Harry faces some challenges in finding ways to cope with that frustration. But he is good at his job: nobody expresses any doubts about that. And he has spent some time thinking about what makes him tick on the job.

“Intuition is just the sum of all your experience. The way I see it, everything you’ve experienced, everything you know, you think you know and didn’t know you knew is there in your subconscious lying dormant, as it were. As a rule you don’t notice the sleeping creature, it’s just there, snoring and absorbing new things, right. But now and then it blinks, stretches and tells you, hey, I’ve seen this picture before. And tells you where in the picture things belong.”

Although not a character given to long bouts of reflection, Harry is obviously an intelligent and thoughtful man, though these longer bits of dialogue are unusual (the structure and pacing is taut, as one would expect in this genre).

Mostly, Harry expresses his intentions succinctly: “‘There is, you see, another way to catch fish without making a splash,’ Harry said. ‘A piece of string and a hook with some bait we know he’ll go for.'”

Whether that hook and bait is successful is resolved at the end of The Bat, but readers will need to read The Cockroaches to find out if those possibilities back home truly await.

(In the meantime, there’s a terrific interview here, which followed Jo Nesbø’s IFOA appearance last month.)