Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #12: Phantom by Jo Nesbo

This latest—and likely last—of the Harry Hole series by the renowned Norwegian author Jo Nesbo is very intense, very dark, very depressing, and  an impressive thriller. Like the other Hole books, it takes place on the seamy side of Oslo, where a new highly-addictive drug called “violin” has moved heroin out of the arena and taken its place. All we know for sure is that other drug crews have been raided, arrested, or run out of the city, and that a phantom dubbed “Mr. Dubai” has taken over the trade with the synthetic “violin”—in Oslo and throughout Norway–and is moving into exports abroad.

In addition to having infiltrated the Oslo police force, Dubai has a small army of young addicts dealing his stuff across the city and raking in millions, and one of these is Oleg, the teenaged son of Harry Hole’s once and former love Rakel, who forced Harry out of their lives three years earlier because his relentless and obsessive pursuit of serial killers was dragging her and her son into the abyss. When one of the young violin dealers is found murdered and all evidence points to Oleg as the killer, word gets to Harry in Hong Kong, where he has been hanging—and drying—out. He returns to Oslo to try to prove Oleg’s innocence and free him, and is immediately targeted by Dubai’s killers for elimination.

Harry is soon in the thick of things, getting beaten up, stabbed, shot at, nearly drowned, and all the while managing, barely, to keep the deadly allure of alcohol at bay. Oleg is refusing to accept Harry’s help out of anger over his apparent abandonment of the boy, and nearly gets killed in prison before Harry is able to prove the weakness of the evidence against Oleg and gets the boy released. The plot thickens every chapter or two, with the introduction of a very creepy femme fatale, a wannabe police chief with a corrupt soul, a tattooed assassin with a mystical knife, a mysterious street priest named Cato who strolls in and out of Harry’s life, a vulnerable young woman trapped in the violin maelstrom, and a chemistry genius with a dark secret.

Nobody and nothing is as it seems, though, and Nesbo’s “bad guy/good guy” shell game kept me guessing nearly to the end. What Nesbo excels at is not only dizzying plot twists, but also his characterizations of what makes people tick. No one is ever a cartoon villain or hero—certainly not Dubai and certainly not Harry Hole—and no one is ever truly an innocent. Nesbo’s Phantom contains multiple parallel tales of father/son relationships that are as stirring as are his revelations of the horrors of addiction to drugs, alcohol, even sex.  And his use of a rat as witness to slayings at the beginning and end of the book is as creative as his use of alternative narrative voices throughout the book, including interspersed musings by the young dealer dying in the opening pages, which slowly reveal the whodunit in parallel to Harry’s own investigation.

There are serious weaknesses in the book, to be sure, such as Harry’s repeated improbable escapes from certain death, which belong more to the realm of Jason Bourne than to a middle-aged recovering drunk. Similar is Harry’s insistence on always placing himself without any backup in the cross-hairs of his enemies, the same lone-wolf scenarios which unfortunately plague all of Nesbo’s novels and render them somehow less memorable than they would otherwise be. Perhaps weakest of all, though, is Phantom’s ending, which is at once both shocking and poorly conceived. I can say no more because it would be a terrible spoiler, except to note that Harry Hole deserved better and so too did Oleg.