The Redbreast

redbreastTo be honest, I am increasingly skeptical of modern police procedurals. I tend to find them very formulaic, both in terms of plot (how many abductions and tortures of white girls need I read?) and in terms of character (he drinks! he smokes! he can’t maintain a relationship except with existential despair! it’s… D.I. Whatsisface!) So when I read Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, the third in his series about Harry Hole (pronounced, approximately, Harrah Hoolah) of the Oslo police force, I wasn’t expecting much.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised. This is a nice, tight mystery that has a well-organized double timeline: one unravels events that took place during World War II, and one deals with far-reaching consequences of those events today. I know nothing, or next to nothing, about the role Norway played in the war. (Yes, I know the word quisling, and I know that Norway was occupied, but that’s about the extent of it.) This mystery helped me understand some of that history, and also the modern context of European/ Scandinavian skinheads and fascism that is so prevalent despite the outcome of that war.

Harry Hole himself is quite an interesting detective. In some ways, he fits the mold I describe above, and in other ways he doesn’t. He struggles with alcoholism and despair, certainly, and I believe he’d prefer to be alone rather than make small talk. But he also respects women, including his partner, and he reaches out for connection with human beings other than just sexual partners. Another break from formula in this mystery was that part of it was left unsolved. The main criminal was caught — or sort of caught — but another significant murderer was not only not caught, but was, in a way, rewarded for his crime. Whether this murderer ever gets his comeuppance, I don’t know, not having read further in the series. It’s unusual for mysteries of any kind not to restore order and justice at the end, neatly enough, even if they leave existential sorts of questions unresolved.

In all, I liked this mystery. It was written in workmanlike prose, straightforward and sometimes even funny, and it was complex enough that I couldn’t see around the twists and bends. Have any of you read more of these than I have? What do you think of this series?

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14 Responses to The Redbreast

  1. Hahahaha, your description of what you don’t like in police procedurals is exactly like mine. I’d have added divorced to the list, but see, you’ve covered that perfectly with inability to carry on a relationship except with existential despair. However, I’ve heard a ton of raves about Nesbo and have had one of his books on my library wish list for a while — good to know I don’t need to brave myself for Lady Issues.

    • Jenny says:

      Yeah, that part was pretty good. I haven’t read some of the police procedurals written by women (Sara Paretsky, for instance) and maybe I’d like those better — I love Kate Atkinson, which is procedural-adjacent. I also hear that the Sjowall and Wahloo series are very good, but at a glance they appear to have absolutely no major female characters whatsoever, so I have my doubts about that part of it.

  2. Rebecca says:

    The next two novels in the series resolve the plot that’s not resolved in this one, though I have to warn you one if them is a serial killer story. I’m a huge fan of this series even through the rough patches (WW2 scenes were a bit convoluted for me), and Zi think it improves with time. Enjoy!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for that — I would have been surprised if they hadn’t wrapped up the unresolved portion. Serial killers, though, are another thing I am so, so weary of in mysteries, along with the abduction of white girls. So boring. It was fresh 30+ years ago with Red Dragon, and really has not gotten a whole lot fresher.

  3. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I thought they were rather good – the dysfunctional policeman thing does increase, but the plots are all meaty and complex and often shocking. I must go and read no.1 in the series, set in Australia. I wish they’d translated/published them in order!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, translation issues can be such a thing! I normally do read series in order (somewhat obsessively, even), but this was for my mystery book group. Honestly, though, if Hole’s dysfunction increases, a lot of my respect for the series as being original goes away. I did think the plot of this one was nicely done, too, though.

  4. Word Lily says:

    I’m trying to think. I enjoy watching police procedurals, most of the time. But I don’t read many of them, despite a reading diet heavy in mysteries/thrillers. I know I read one this year where the protag fit your description to a T, and … ick. It was such a depressing book!

    • Jenny says:

      I love procedurals, but all the ones I love best are older ones (I think I’ve read every one Ed McBain ever wrote, for instance, or K.C. Constantine’s, or there are several other examples.) The modern trend — I might even say rut — of making them so grim doesn’t seem to me to serve much purpose; police officers vary as much as the rest of the population.

  5. Word Lily says:

    Oh, I meant to say: I’ve got one Nesbo on my TBR shelf, I think, but I don’t think it’s part of this series.

  6. Alex says:

    I’ve given up adding new crime writers to my list because the current crop seem to plough the same furrow time after time. I have a few that I trust, like Rankin and Robinson but even some of those are beginning to pall. So, I haven’t picked up any of Hole’s work. I will give one of them a try on the strength of your review and see if he makes my grade.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, it’s not a rave review! It’s a this-was-better-than-I thought review. :) I haven’t tried any Robinson; maybe I’ll give one a whirl. Have you read any Ed McBain? I think he’s terrific; absolutely reliable, time after time. And I’m really enjoying K.C. Constantine, though the books can be hard to find.

  7. Amy Meyer says:

    I haven’t read any of Jo Nesbo’s books yet but I want to. In fact, I was in the library the other day and trying to figure out which was the first book and if the library had it! I’m glad this book turned out better than you expected. I’m looking forward to reading these books.
    I’ve read several of Henning Mankell’s mysteries which involve a Detective Wallander and are also set in Norway. I’ve really enjoyed them…the writing is straightforward and sparse and Wallander is a man committed to his work carrying around plenty of demons. But doing that kind of work how could you not? I’d expect most seasoned investigators of crime to be drinkers, too, just because of all the horrible things they see people doing or have done to each other.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read two or three Wallanders (Swedish, I think) and liked them all right but not been inspired to seek out more. Again, I don’t think they’re always very original. The idea that most investigators would be alcoholics or rage-filled or unable to have a relationship I find condescending. Surely it’s a burnout profession, but do we have the same expectation that social workers, inner-city teachers, ER doctors, paramedics, prison guards, directors of homeless shelters, and crisis counselors will be divorced angry alcoholics? Stress affects different people in different ways. It’s the way these novels seem to portray the stress all the same way that I’m complaining about.

  8. jenclair says:

    I’ve read several, including this one, and have the same opinion. And I, too, was especially intrigued by Norway’s role in WWII. Since then I’ve read other books that include WWII Norway’s ambiguous role, but this one was the first.

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