May 17, 2012

A plot with a Hole in it

Jo Nesbo's Phantom continues the adventures of rogue Norwegian policeman Harry Hole.

Returning from Bangkok to Norway, Hole is intent on proving that Oleg, the son of his former girlfriend, Rakel, is not guilty of the murder with which he's being charged. As usual, the plot involves corrupt policemen, underworld Mr Bigs, and a twisty, turny plot that Nesbo uses to manipulate our sympathies.

Translated from Norwegian by the author's usual translator, the prose has its typical clunky effect. The problem with translating - I speak from a little experience - is that when you come across a phrase in the original that, when translated into English, seems a little odd, it's often difficult to know whether that was the author's intention or not. So for example:
But when he went back to the front door the boy had hopped it.
The phrase 'hopped it' reeks of the 1950s, and is given to us as representing the thought of a policeman in 2011. Does Nesbo want this slightly dated turn of phrase to represent this policeman? Or is it an attempt by the translator to be a bit casual and different, rather than using a simple expression like 'run off' or even 'legged it'? If nothing else, if I were Nesbo, I'd wonder whether my American readers would understand the usage ...

As in most of his previous books, Nesbo's tactic in Phantom is to set several hares running and organize the plot so that they all arrive at the finishing line together. So here we follow Harry's story as he investigates the crime, but we are also given the first-person narration of the person who was murdered - Gusto, a young drug-dealer and junkie. Add to this a certain amount of the story told through the eyes of a bent cop, Truls Bernsten, and the narrative lines become complicated - especially as many of the other characters also add their own reported narrations into the mix.

The effect of these multiple viewpoints, unfortunately, is to muddy the story rather than clarify it. Now in a crime story a certain amount of ambiguity is acceptable and even expected, as first one person then another becomes the focus of our attention as the suspected murderer/criminal. But in fact the information we're given from the different viewpoints seems to be there simply to 'surprise' us, not to be part of a slow revelation of clues that help us understand the underlying crime. For example, there's a scene where Harry leaves the apartment of someone he knows is guilty of a crime. When he leaves, the individual reaches for a rifle that Harry hadn't found when searching the place and aims at Harry's retreating back as he walks away ... end of chapter. New chapter: the guy takes a deep breath and puts down the rifle, having decided not to fire. Now this is uncalled for in context and isn't particularly dramatic, because we know Harry isn't going to be shot in the back when there are 60 pages still to go. The scene is there simply to act as a teaser, to force us to turn the page and start a new chapter.

This is an obvious example, but there are others that are less obvious until you start to see them. For example, there is a set-up early in the book that an assassin has been put in place to kill 'a policeman'. It soon becomes clear that this is Harry. Nesbo shows us the assassin preparing himself and we even catch glimpses of him 'in the background' as we follow Harry working on the case. Without giving any of the plot away, the assassination attempt comes to light ... but the rationale for it is extremely thin. Essentially, the chief Bad Guy was aware that Harry would come to Oleg's defence and wanted to take him out of the picture. In fact this would require such foresight on the Bad Guy's behalf that it's fairly preposterous. But tactically, for Nesbo, it's a way of adding some tension into the first half of the story, while Harry is re-acclimatising himself to Norway and starting his investigation. Without this 'tension' the book wouldn't really contain any genre markers for 'thriller' and would be a fairly mundane police procedural, at least for its first half.

So this is my main gripe about the book. Nesbo's focus seems split. As in the previous books, he develops Harry Hole's character as addictive, intelligent, even cunning, stubborn and in thrall to Rakel, the love of his life. He also spends a lot of page-time exploring the world of Gusto, the drug-addict/victim. There's a real intention to show us these characters as real people with depth, passion, flaws and hopes.

On the other hand, he's writing for an audience that expects a certain number of 'thriller' buttons to be pushed. There has to be surprise, revelation, mysterious bad guys and violence. All of which he supplies, but in an almost mechanical fashion. The plot events whir like cogs and bring us to a resolution, but it's as if the two sides of the story don't quite fit together, the cogs don't mesh.

And this is clear in the sense of 'Wha' happened?' that hits you at the end of the story. The resolution brings a lack of resolution. Is Mikael Bellman a bad guy or not? What part did the character Dubai play in the story? Why did we spend so much time with Tord Schulz at the beginning of the book when he disappears so rapidly afterwards? And the book ends with an even bigger mystery than it began with, that I can't mention because it would be the biggest spoiler of all ...

Jo Nesbo is extremely popular and rightly so. His earlier books had prodigious bad guys, well-tooled plots and a character in Harry Hole who suffered physically and psychologically for our enjoyment. In Phantom, I'm afraid that the plotting tactics he's used before - concealing 'real' identities from the reader, revealing back-story bit-by-bit to explain the present narrative, using interesting killing tools, punishing his hero - have tipped over the edge into self-parody. He's certainly pushing the envelope of what he does as a writer, but this time it's at the expense of coherence and, in the end, enjoyment.

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