Book Review: The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Posted on Monday, November 1st, 2010

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The book is the fifth in the Harry Hole detective series to be translated into English. Jo Nesbo (50) is a Norwegian novelist and musician who is fast becoming one of the bigger names in the competitive and crowded marketplace for Scandinavian crime fiction.

Based on this translation of The Snowman, Nesbo is likely to repeat his Scandinavian successes and gain a new regiment of fans in the English-speaking world. For my money, this story equals the crème de la crème of Britain’s crime writers, such as Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Time will tell if Mr Nesbo can match their stamina, too.

The story centres around 22 days in Oslo and its surrounding suburbs and forests. A serial killer is on the loose, and his or her calling card is a snowman. Detective Harry Hole is drafted in with a new partner to solve the case. Together he and Katrine Bratt follow the clues in a classic whodunit that keeps the reader guessing, and importantly, turning pages. Nesbo’s great ability is to continually surprise us as we follow Hole and Bratt down a series of dead-ends, false starts, and red herrings. Just as we think we’ve nailed down a suspect, there’s a dramatic reversal and the plot runs off in a new and engaging direction. The final denouement is a classic confrontation between Hole and his nemesis and the story ends on a satisfying, but slightly open, note.

They say good crime fiction holds up a mirror to wider society, and, in addition to suspenseful plotting, this is another key attraction of the book. We get a real sense of Olso as a city in transition with racial tensions simmering away in the background. In addition, the harsh Norwegian winter provides the perfect stage for a multi-murder mystery involving a lot of snow! The book’s main theme is infidelity, usually committed by married women, and its impact on the family unit. Similar to Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, the violence is perpetrated against strong independent women. Throughout the book we get hints of female empowerment still struggling to find its place in a fair and equal society. Conversely, a lot of the male characters come across as slightly impotent or weak, and the resulting frustration spills into aggression and violence. As one character ruefully notes on page 373, ‘Single women are like us single guys nowadays.’ Addiction – in the form of TV talk shows, alcohol, sex, and, of course, violence – is another key theme of the book.

The final key strength of The Snowman is the characterization. Harry Hole has a troubled past involving alcoholism, ex partners, and the death of his colleagues. He is described in the book as a ‘diminished giant’ and this nicely sums up his physical and mental state. He engages throughout and from time to time makes us laugh with a dry sense of humour. The female characters are also well drawn, and aside from a constant predilection for extra-marital sex, they feel rounded, complex and believable.

If there are any weaknesses in the book, it would be a tendency to write in clichés, such as ‘found his prey’, ‘the smell of fear’ or ‘the heart of darkness’ – but these are few and far between and don’t intrude on the narrative. While the plotting is tight, the one downside perhaps was the three or so chapters from the killer’s point of view. I found these chapters jolted me out of the narrative – they were flashbacks – and didn’t sit comfortably with the linear direction of Harry’s investigation. Better, I thought, to let the salient information come out naturally in the main body of the story. But this, again, is a minor quibble in the context of the whole book.

In summary, then, Messrs Nesbo and Harry Hole deserve full marks for this engaging page-turner.

This hidden gem is reviewed by our guest blogger Charles Daly. Thanks for this great review, Charles!

Both Paperback and Kindle editions are available at Amazon!

Buy The Snowman at Amazon

Our rating: ★★★★☆

  • Author: Jo Nesbo
  • Hardcover: 550 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books (2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846553482
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846553486

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Tagged as crime, detective, Fiction, harry hole, jo nesbo, Mystery, norway, oslo, serial killer, Stieg Larsson+ Categorized as By year, 2010, By rating, 4 Stars, By genre, By rating, By year, By genre, Mystery

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