Nor is it what the sticker on the front proclaims it to be, “The Brand New Thriller” from the author of The Snowman. Well, it obviously is from the author of The Snowman, which is the only other Nesbø book I’ve read. But it’s not a thriller. It is something different, something more.
Describing the premise of the novel, however, will make it sound like a thriller. Our narrator is Olav Johansen, a “fixer” or assassin for one of two criminal bosses in Oslo. His assignment is to kill the wife of his own boss who has been having an affair. Which then puts him in a position where he is concerned that he knows too much and will become the target rather than the fixer.
So far, so thriller.
But Olaf is an unconventional fixer. He is dyslexic but an avid reader and the prose is littered with explicit references. Facts are offered with an appended “Or so I’ve read somewhere”. Sometimes the specific book and volume are cited, along with the library in which he’d read it. There’s an extended allusion to and echoes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables throughout the novel.
Although not explicitly stated, there’s also traits of the autistic spectrum in the presentation of Olav. He comments that Darwin had identified “only six universal facial expressions for human emotions” and he struggles to identify those emotions, describing himself as “completely tone-deaf when it comes to noticing the undertones and subtexts in what people say”. As I say, he was as unconventional narrator as he is a fixer.
Hoffmann and The Fisherman, the two rival crime bosses, were fairly standard fare. But there are also two rival women in the novel: Corina, Hoffmann’s beautiful cheating wife; and Maria, the fiancée of a junkie who was being forced to prostitute herself to pay off his debts. These two women were beautifully portrayed, with a control and sparseness, especially with Maria, which I hadn’t expected.
In fact, sparse is not a bad word to describe the novel. There is a single plot that plays out, interspersed with fragments from Olav’s own past. And it comes in a not much over 100 pages (on my ebook edition). There is an economy and a precision here to the prose: there is enough to create the characters and no more. Nothing is wasted. The opening scene of the book contains the image of red blood pooling on snow which “made me think of a king’s robe, all purple and lined with ermine, like the drawings in books of Norweigan folk tales my mother used to read me”, and describes the way the snow “sucked the blood up as it fell, drawing it in under the surface, hiding it, as if it had some sort of use for it. As I walked home I imagineda snowman rising up from the snowdrift, one with clearly visible veins of blood under its deathly pale skin of ice”. The final scene of the book returns to and inverts the same image in a wonderfully macabre fairytale image.
At its heart, however, it is a book about stories and narratives. The stories we tell each other – but more importantly ourselves – in order to make some form of sense of the world we inhabit. Even if we are confronted with evidence that contradicts the story.