Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SUSPENSE: Jo Nesbø delivers the goods once more

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"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

Let’s just say that if you ante up for Jo Nesbø’s latest Harry Hole thriller, you’ll be covered in shame from head to toe.

Not for long, mind you, because Police (Random House, 528 pages, $25) is a guaranteed, bags-under-your-eyes  marathon read. Its cat-and-mouse game with the reader so cleverly beguiling that it should come with a dustcover advisory: ‘Warning: May be harmful to your job, marriage, sleep and blood pressure.’

It's not just that Nesbø has, over the course of 10 Hole books, conjured up one of the most magnetic detectives -- some say, character of any stripe -- in modern fiction, aided by a recurring and one-off cast imbued with the same visceral magic. Nor that few can match his warts-and-all rendering of Oslo and its inhabitants for sheer tangibility of setting.

No, it's that the new challenge to Hole and his team -- a vicious serial killer stalking cops involved in previously unsolved murders -- is so peppered with missteps, false leads, blind alleys and dashed hopes you'll have to resist pleading, shouting, tearing your hair out or just burning the damn thing.

Nesbø sets the hook early, at least for readers of 2011's Phantom, who last saw poor Harry shot up by his paramour's drugged-up son: A battered, unnamed coma victim is under hospital guard, with a newly minted police chief and equally ruthless city official scheming to ensure he never wakes up.

And, amazingly, our wildly obsessive train-wreck of an anti-hero is entirely absent from the first third of the book, though his spectre hangs over the small Crime Squad team as the investigation hits one dead end after another and more horribly mutilated bodies turn up.

But when a scarcely recognizable Harry does finally appear, the shock value is muted by the harried pace and complexity of the narrative as Nesbø ratchets up the suspense on multiple fronts to hair-trigger intensity. Another warning: Bathroom breaks will be hard to manage at this point.

For all of that, Police is a more conventional cop procedural, with fewer ghoulish tableaux, nightmarish stream-of-consciousness interludes and Harry-esque introspection than previous instalments. Has Nesbø, with his burgeoning international popularity, gone more commercial?

Well, yes, but accessibility isn't a bad thing if you deliver the goods, as Nesbø once again does in his own inimitable style.

-- -- --

Even for those not greatly enamoured of historical mysteries, the sequel to Lyndsay Faye's remarkable 2012 evocation of 1840s New York and its fledgling police force, The Gods of Gotham, has been greatly anticipated. Was it a one-shot wonder, or would the young, nouveau New Yorker brush off the sequel curse and birth an extraordinary, multi-part saga?

No worries -- fire-scarred, lovelorn, over-curious Timothy Wilde, his "three-quarters despicable" brother Valentine and a motley crew of newly minted "copper stars" are back in even finer form in Seven for a Secret (464 pages, Amy Einhorn/Putnam, $29).

It's six months since Tim, with his sibling's reluctant but unapologetically violent help, brought down a child-murderer, but lost his true love Mercy, who has emigrated to London. Now, a young mulatto woman's son and sister are kidnapped from the home of a key Democratic state senator by "blackbirders," slave-catchers who prey on free blacks and runaways alike.

Self-effacing but righteously motivated, Tim blunders through a political, racial and religious minefield that routinely sparks riots and assorted bedlam, trying to recover the missing and get them to Canada via the Underground Railroad. And, once again, his reprobate brother, constantly disdainful of his younger brother's political naiveté and fearing it will be the end of him, comes to the rescue.

Faye's vision of antebellum New York, down to its lowlife "flash" lexicon, is so authentically fascinating, so thoroughly wedded to blood-and-bone characters and perilous, jaw-dropping narrative, as to mimic time travel. It's a trip well worth taking.

Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A1

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