Hit men, psychotics—and very noisy neighbors

Three thrilling crime writers for fall

Jo Nesbø

Photo: Håkon Mosvold Larsen / NTB
Jo Nesbø, creator of Harry Hole, Norway’s favorite derelict cop, is a national treasure.

The new crop of Norwegian crime fiction has plenty of memorable characters to meet—but they aren’t exactly the sort you’re going to want to have a beer with down at Schroder’s.

I name-drop Schroder’s, because our first selection of the new works is by national treasure Jo Nebsø, the creator of everybody’s favorite Norwegian derelict cop, Harry Hole, who, of course, hangs out at Schroder’s in Oslo.

Like the rest of the reading public, I await Harry’s next misadventure with impatient anticipation. So—Nesbø does have a new book—but Inspector Hole is not in evidence. This is a collection of short stories, bearing the enigmatic title The Jealousy Man.

While the story with that name is longish, indeed, Nesbø displays a penchant for the novella form throughout this bulky collection. 

Protagonist Nikos Balli, “Jealousy Man,” is a cop with a shaky past who solves crimes that have a Green Monster aspect. His chief says that what Nikos possesses in the “way of emotional intelligence,” he lacks in “practical imagination.” In other words, Balli does one thing only and he does it well:  he solves crimes inspired by jealousy.

This unusual trait is owed, Balli believes, to his ex-wife, who was cheating on him. He honed his skills while ferreting out her perfidy. In fact, the back story here is the most interesting part of this signature story, since the major plot is the old identical twins trope that has been done endlessly before.

But wait!! There is a very interesting paragraph in this story about how readers engage—it was the saving grace for me.

Nesbø bookends (almost) his collection with two tales of hitmen. One is London, a crisp cat-and-mouse between a killer and his victim, who have side by side seats on a plane.

Black Knight, the other hit man tale, is longer and shows plenty of promise to be a full-length novel. The plot, set in the near-future, introduces us to an elite society of assassins, where we watch two of its best square off in a grudge match—with a child’s life hanging in the balance. 

This is the sort of run-in that Harry Hole eats for breakfast—and the assassin in this tale proves to be no slouch himself. This one is prime Nesbø—and prime Nesbø never disappoints.

Helene Flood

Helene Flood, a working psychologist by day, whips up plenty of good old-fashioned suspense in The Lover, a novel with a hook you won’t be able to resist. Our very fallible narrator, Rikke, lives with her husband and two children in an upscale apartment complex in Oslo. Things seem calm on the surface until Rikke reveals to us that she is deep into an affair with Jørgen, a married man who lives upstairs—and who has just turned up dead in his own study.

Yep—the hook is in. Police are swarming the building, and Rikke knows it’s a matter of time—maybe moments—before she starts getting asked the kinds of questions that, if answered honestly, will end her marriage.

Author Flood, a canny plotter, also offers a houseful (literally) of other suspects with motives galore. Though the conclusion is unnecessarily drawn out, the author is also good at getting us to invest in her characters—flaws and all. In the best crime fiction tradition, she puts poor Rikke in some real messes—mostly of her own making—even as, between the lines, she pointedly asks the reader: “What would YOU do?” That direction lies the way to a great literary discussion of guilt and responsibility, and The Lover, at its best, is exactly that.

Ruth Lillegraven

Photo: Terje Pedersen / NTB
Ruth Lillegraven knows how to hook in her readers every time, as she does in Blood Ties.

For the “Flawed Protagonist of the Year Award”—maybe of the decade—I’m going to have to pick Clara Lofthus, the central figure in Ruth Lillegraven’s Blood Ties. This volume is the second in a series: Clara’s debut—a very successful one—came last year in the book that started this series—Everything is Mine.

In that opener, Clara is a child-rights activist who winds up murdering—well—a COUPLE of people, but mainly her jerk of a husband. Good riddance, readers said—but in the new book it looks like Clara might have swung her scythe again, this time in the cause of self-preservation. She’s got a lot to preserve this time—she’s now Norway’s minister of justice, although she puts in about as much actual office time as Santa Claus. That’s because her two sons have been kidnapped and of course imagine the consequences if the press finds out and—OK, you’ve passed this way before also.

The wrinkle is that this woman really is a stone-cold killer. In fact, you can tell she sort of likes it. Lillegraven is toiling in vineyards already planted by television’s Dexter and Barry, not to mention, in print, Lawrence Block’s superb Keller series.

But, like Helene Flood, Lillegraven knows how to hook—her preference is for multiple first-person narrators so that if one irritates you another is just a page-turn away.  As for her homicidal protagonist, Clara—she’s living on her own very frightening terms. And who knows? In her world, we might, too. 

The payoff in Blood Ties doesn’t really sustain the weight cast upon it by a double kidnapping, but I was bemused enough that I’d go for another soiree with Clara— just as long as she’s not armed.

This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.