Jo Nesbø’s The Redeemer—a Christmas crime read
Crime Corner: Norwegian Noir with Jerry Holt
Once the presents are wrapped and under the tree and the eggnog is comfortably gurgling in my stomach, my favorite unwinder on a preferably snowy Christmas Eve is to read in front of an open fireplace.
And, as you can tell from the name of this column, my read of choice is the same as endless others the globe around: a great mystery. Or—even better—a mystery set during the holiday season.
I was in just such a pleasant situation—and living in Bergen, yet—when I read Jo Nesbø’s The Redeemer, pretty much cover to cover in one sitting. Wait. I think I got up a couple of times to refresh the eggnog. Those zillions of you who know Nesbø’s Harry Hole series know that these novels are nothing if not page turners. Nesbø, like his Norwegian colleagues Gunnar Staalesen and Karin Fossum, has the knack of grabbing the reader at story’s beginning and never letting go. And that is the case with The Redeemer from 2009, officially the fourth of Harry’s adventures. Here we quickly locate Harry at his prickly post with the Bergen police department, suffering dually from the rigors of working with a new boss and the loss of his longtime love, Rakel, and her son, Oleg, to (sigh) a smarmy-assed doctor. Tough times for Harry, but no tougher than usual for this veritable Job of an antihero.
The Christmas catch is that Harry is about to be put on the trail of a stone-cold killer who has just gunned down a choir member who was part of a Salvation Army choir that was in the middle of a street concert. We the readers have already digested the chapter before this one, and we soon learn that the killer got the wrong guy—it was his brother who had a contract on his head.
As usual with Nesbø, The Redeemer has enough back story to gag an especially large Norwegian Forest cat, and Harry is going to wind up in locales as far-flung as the former Yugoslavia—but the most dangerous jungle for Harry in this book will still be the back streets of Oslo, filled with desperate people leading desperate lives. “The Redeemer” of the title is, of course, the assassin, who is on the prowl searching for the target he was supposed to hit in the first place. And then there’s that matter of a 22-year-old rape case that also involves the Salvation Army and, lest we forget, the case of the suicide Harry was supposed to be working in the first place that might not be a suicide at all.
Yes—things get that complex, and this of course is one of the many pleasures of a Harry Hole yarn. Will you need to read some parts twice? Probably—because Nesbø is always a couple of jumps ahead of even the most careful reader. And certainly another nail-biting pleasure of this book is seeing whether the often drunk Harry will manage to stay sober enough to get before he is gotten. There is one early sequence that I’m guessing would be a favorite of Nesbø followers: Our battered protagonist has gotten himself stuck on a fence by a Metzner dog, whose angry aggression is truly homicidal. Nesbø helpfully reminds us that this breed of dog is “a relative of the bone-devouring speckled hyena.” In a rare stroke of luck for the usually hapless Harry, the animal has sunk its teeth into the part of Harry’s leg that is newly prosthetic—and that gives Harry the chance—in this moment’s most bizarre turn—to empty his own flask of whiskey down the dog’s throat, sending it plunging unconscious to the ground. Does a triumphant Harry mutter “Skål” at the downed brute? Of course he does.
I admit to laughing at loud at this passage when I reread it for this review, but it isn’t that funny. This dog is part of the night world that Harry inhabits, and The Redeemer, as can be seen from the book titles and its section and chapter titles like “Mercy” and “Exodus,” runs along a secondary track that asks us to consider damnation and salvation both—subjects that have a lot to do with Harry. At one point Harry remembers a quote from Ibsen that his own father loved: “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.” That line comes from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and that play demonstrates strongly that those words mean both salvation—and the damnation of exile. That’s Harry Hole, God bless him.
And indeed a Christmas night by the fireplace is hardly the worst place to consider a weighty matter like one’s own soul—or, in this case, Harry’s. His profession is, after all, the perfect one for a lonely person: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is hardly the only hard-drinking detective to realize that his work is the work of an outcast—one who is forever looking in from the outside on other people’s lives. But it is also a job that occasionally allows Harry to salvage the occasional soul. What better kind of story to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child?
The Redeemer moves along at a clip fast enough to satisfy any moviegoer, but if you also need a cinematic thriller for Christmas, I would hasten to suggest The Thin Man (1934), The Lady in the Lake (1946), and the original film version of I, The Jury (1953)—all of which take place during the Yuletide season and all of which are based on classic detective novels. The first is by Dashiell Hammett, the second by Raymond Chandler—and the third by none other than Mickey Spillane. All of these films have worn very well, and all of them bear their own little surprises—The Lady in the Lake, for example, employs a first-person camera—a bold experiment then or now.
So, from Crime Corner—happy reading—and watching—and, most of all—Happy Holidays!
This article originally appeared in the December 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.