Taking another break from the ongoing adventures of detective Harry Hole (last seen in the surprisingly happy ending of 2013’s Police), Norwegian crime fiction master Jo Nesbø shifts perspective from the good guys to the bad in a new single-sitting thriller.
With his history of concocting deep villains, it’s no surprise that Nesbø can write convincingly through the eyes of a hired killer, the otherwise inept Olav Johansen, a “fixer” for a crime boss who deals in prostitution and heroin in 1970s Oslo.
Roughly a third the length of his typical novels, Blood on Snow moves at a quicker pace as well, with Nesbø’s writing crisper and shorter on the whole. By taking the first-person perspective, he’s able to push right into Olav’s head, the detached ruthlessness of his outward character bumping against an internal world of uncertainty, doubts and quirks.
The novel, published in Norway under the pseudonym of Tom Johansen with at least a second volume to follow, opens in the dark Oslo winter, its coldest in decades. After shooting a man, Olav watches the man’s blood mingling with the wind-swept snow: “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.”
Such a casual, almost poetic observation from a man well versed in the faces of death suggests a divide, either subconscious or intentional, on Olav’s part, a need for stronger inward defenses against his murderous exterior. Olav’s reaction to the latest job in his four years as a fixer carries through to the next scene, a conversation with crime boss Hoffman. The job—at five times the normal rate—is to kill Hoffman’s own wife.
Olav hesitates, but knows he can’t back out. Too many of Hoffman’s secrets are bared to the fixer already and from the moment of the job offer, no matter who might carry out the act, Olav now knows Hoffman would be the one responsible for his wife’s death.
But in staking out his next victim, Olav becomes bewitched by Corina Hoffman. The action progresses through another calmly executed murder, to Corina and Olav falling in love, at which point the battle shifts, placing the fixer against his boss.
Out of necessity, Nesbø writes at a clip that prioritizes the story’s momentum over some of his characters’ motivations. Olav’s own internal dialogue about his past provides enough of a foundation for the sudden betrayal of his boss, but Corina is barely introduced before she’s falling in love with the man hired to kill her. Though there is far more to come with Corina, those passages oversimplify her character in favor of plot expediency.
After a telling flashback to Olav’s youth, the second half of the book races by in an extended climax, which is where Nesbø shines. The showdown in a church’s crypt is one of the best action scenes he’s written yet across any of the 10 Hole novels and two other standalone thrillers, Headhunters and The Son.
?More noir than the psychologically driven Harry Hole books, Blood on Snow tries perhaps to make too much of Olav, tacking on a penchant for reading that inspires the dyslexic protagonist to labor over his own hidden note to a girl from his past whom he cautiously stalks. Though that builds to the surreal, dreamscape ending, it puts the brakes on the book’s effectively drawn plot.
Flaws aside, nothing in Nesbø’s catalog besides Headhunters (a 2011 picture directed by Morten Tyldum that became the highest grossing Norwegian film ever) is so cinematic, so brusquely suited for the visually driven medium of film. And there are already talks of a big-screen version of the book, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Olav.
Nesbø’s strengths will be familiar to any reader of the Harry Hole books: the masterful use of setting to create an atmosphere, the vivid action scenes, the deliciously queasiness of the crimes, the clever moves by the protagonist to outwit his opponents, the realistically conflicted and vulnerable characters and the ability to meditate on larger themes within the context of the story: here the question centers on the potency of love.
Blood on Snow is a quick, entertaining novel. It’s not on par with the Hole books but it’s not trying to be. It’s a more-than-satisfying excursion to a slightly different corner of the criminal underworld, where death and love become tangled together in the cold, dark streets of Oslo.