Two drunken returns
Crime Corner brought to you by Jerry Holt
It’s a bright month that brought us the returns of two of Mysteryland’s most beloved sleuths—and this June, that is exactly what happened. No sooner does Norway’s favorite down-and-out copper, Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, return from the half-dead, but across the way in Ireland the seedily delightful John Banville’s Dr. Quirke is also back with us, drunker than three goats as usual but sharp as ever when called upon to detect. Both will be ready for our bookshelves in July and a good dose of summer reading.
The new entry in the Hole canon, Killing Moon—the 13th installment to be precise—finds the now-suicidal Harry mourning the death of his beloved Rakel and drinking himself into oblivion. He has relocated from Oslo to Los Angeles—not a bad choice historically, since so many dreams have gone there to die.
Harry himself is near death: a pitiful-looking ghost of a man whose past adventures have taken their toll on his perpetually battered body, because in Harry’s line of work, a good battering is the order of the day. If you count the injuries, Harry has by this point lost a finger, sustained an Ahab-like scar that runs from his mouth outward, and has, despite his endless stumbles to his beloved Schroder’s Bar, evidently consumed little sustenance that isn’t liquid.
He’s got a gun back in his roach-ridden hotel room, and he plans to use it. Harry’s real problem is that he is brimful of guilt—guilt over all the people who—all these pages later—he hasn’t been able to save: Rakel first, of course, but so many others before and since: “Yes, that was the story of his life. What the hell, soon he’d have no one to let down anyway.”
Enter the aged Lucille, who materializes down the bar from where Harry sits, hoisting what he assumes will be his last drink before he eats that gun of his. Lucille has invested money in a film (it’s Hollywood) and lost heavily: the mobsters are after her, and she can’t meet the vigorish, let alone the whole bundle. All this comes out as she and Harry drunkenly evaluate old rockers, and in about the length of time it takes to swizzle a stick has a raison d’ etre again, Lucille. He agrees to get the money—$960,000 that Lucille owes within 10 days—and the suspense clock kicks in.
As far as suspense goes, we could stand a little more of that this time out. Harry next cleans himself up—an enterprise not unlike shellacking a slum—and Lucille kindly buys him a suit. Looking slightly less like himself, Harry is off to Oslo, where he goes to work for a wheeler-dealer businessman named Markus Roed, who has been implicated in the deaths of two young women who do not seem to be linked by anything but the fact that they attended a party of his. Harry dislikes Roed—as does the reader—but Roed has what Harry needs: the money.
In Oslo, Harry assembles the kind of team that we more associate with the Mission: Impossible franchise. Why, look: here’s Harry’s old pal Stale Aune, the psychologist. He’s now dying of cancer, but he is more than willing to sign on for what is likely his last outing. And there is Øystein, the cab driver-philosopher, and Truls Berntsen, a cop who is even more corrupt than all the other cops in the Harry Hole series—and that’s saying something. The structural problem with this team is that they are given to talk—and talk. And wow, does that slow down narrative progress.
But meanwhile, the two murders bring us to where author Nesbø wants us: there’s a serial killer on the loopy loose, and that is, as we know, Harry’s specialty. All of Oslo puts up with Harry when he is on the scent of Oslo’s next maniac.
As many reviewers have noted, these serial killers have often threatened to turn several Hole novels into something near torture porn: the woman-as-victim is a staple of this series and an unfortunate one, given the realities of the real world out there. Early in the book when we get a conversation about Harvey Weinstein, I had to grimace: was there ever a Nesbø villain who wasn’t a version of Weinstein? They all hate women, and they all do terrible things to them. Killer Moon’s Lector-ish baddie is given to ripping open a skull and popping the victim’s brains out, but allegorically, the real-life Weinstein was up to the same thing.
The novel grinds on to near 500 pages, a lot of them pretty grisly. But several million Nesbø fans know what they want, and this must be it. For my part, violence against women has become as repulsive to me in print as in life. In the future, perhaps Harry—an endless fascinating character—could take on something just as lethal but less sexist. If, of course, Harry stays alive.
As mystery devotees know, Dublin’s John Banville, a regular contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “literary” fiction, has a side gig as Benjamin Black, who chronicles the 1950s adventures of Dr. Quirke, a pathologist who could probably drink even Harry Hole under the table. Damn does this guy knock them back.
Of course, Quirke, like Harry, has reason: his bride, Evelyn, who brought the ever-morose Quirke a kind of happiness, was gunned down in the last episode of the Quirke series, April in Spain. Not only that: the nebulous Inspector Strafford, first introduced in the novel Snow, has remained a reality in Quirke’s life since Strafford saved it in the same deadly skirmish that killed Evelyn.
A year later in The Lock-Up, Quirke still mourns; resents Strafford for complex reasons, and behaves churlishly to his adult daughter Phoebe, whose relationship with her father can best be described as rocky.
But Quirke gets the distraction he needs when Rosa Jacobs, a scholar and activist, turns up dead—evidently a suicide. Well, there are few suicides in Quirke’s world and this one, of course, bears investigating. Suddenly Quirke, Strafford, and the ubiquitous Inspector Hackett, a longtime Quirke ally/antagonist, are sniffing out clues and butting heads. The dead woman is Jewish, and that opens up the past of this case in ways the reader doesn’t see coming—nor should, because the ever-surprising Banville/Black is very good at what he does.
And the prose! To die for—or at least to re-read for. What magic. Quirke on the orphanage where he grew up: “Of the orphanage he wished to remember nothing, although he did.” Of Hackett and liquor: “He didn’t want another drink, but he needed one.” The bons mots just flow.
Both of the novels are written by authors at the top of their games. Both continue to chronicle lost, brilliant antiheroes whose ruined lives contain vestiges of ourselves. And yes—if you drink while you read—single malt scotch goes well with Quirke.
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.