Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
SUSPENSE: Nesbo best mystery magician
Jo Nesbo is merciless. Infuriating, uncompromising, even insidious.
And that's just to his readers. What the Norwegian musician-author does to poor ex-cop Harry Hole in Phantom (Random House, 464 pages, $25) is a hellishly intimate torture, terrible to behold.
Love is perhaps the only reason why Harry, still maimed by physical scars and suffocating nightmares from two career-ending cases (2010's The Snowman and last year's The Leopard), would return to Oslo after three years of self-exile in Hong Kong. A murder charge against Oleg, the son of his estranged lover, Rakel -- the family that his compulsive job obsession had endangered and denied to him -- fits that gut-wrenching bill.
With no official sanction, relying on a few former colleagues, blackmail and Oleg's lawyer (Rakel's new paramour), Harry grapples with a corrupt triumvirate of cops, politicians and crooks in pursuit of an invisible drug lord who holds the key to Oleg's innocence. Racked by fever from the work of an assassin's blade, he stumbles like a battered golem through the mean streets, flop hotels and shooting-galleries of Oslo's drug-lost in the shadow of its gleaming new Opera House and slum-cleared precincts.
It's a tragic, nightmarish odyssey -- bleakly resigned, arguably unredemptive and evincing Nesb's multifarious plot twists, take-no-prisoners style and rakingly intimate dissection of friend and foe alike. That a familiar third-person narration is repeatedly jarred by the dying thoughts of the teenage murder victim punctuates this feverish delivery. And then there's the rat ....
Nesbo is not easy. False resolutions abound: Just when you think it's over -- case solved, Harry back on the plane to Thailand -- it's not. Until it is. But the clues and connections are all there, just demanding keen attention.
Moreover, Nesbo's courageous risk-taking is relentlessly challenging. In Phantom, he takes the ultimate risk. It's a bet that pays off in a consummate, stellar achievement by the best mystery magician on the planet.
-- -- --
This one is painful (and in some quarters heretical), because Guido Bernetti and his creator, Donna Leon, are a class act. The U.S.-born longtime Venice resident and her sardonic, erudite and cultured police commissario have trolled the Floating City for villains of the criminal, political and bureaucratic persuasion for two decades in 20 elegant and finely tuned episodes.
But Beastly Things (Atlantic Monthly, 288 pages, $29) is simply a non-starter, with Brunetti plodding to the predictable conclusion of a ho-hum investigation. Only pale vestiges remain of the personality, story twists, insightful rumination and family/professional dynamics that gave Leon's past efforts such a singular quality.
Even her signature evocations of Venice seem travelogue-ish here, and Brunetti's usual wry, despairing commentary on Italian justice and politics just perfunctory. Instead, the murder of a slaughterhouse vet allows Leon's penchant for deft social commentary to overwhelm the story in anti-meat propaganda.
As with all Brunetti tales, there's lots of eating and drinking and pondering along the way. But here it falls strangely flat, resembling so much dross and filler. It's all pleasant enough, but sadly forgettable.
-- -- --
If historical thrillers are an acquired taste, New Yorker Lyndsay Faye has penned a debut that might guarantee its acquisition.
So thoroughly researched, brilliantly conceived and viscerally executed is The Gods of Gotham (Amy Einhorn, 432 pages, $28) that the "brutal, greedy, frenzied, and secretive" streets of 1845 New York are wholly reborn, down to the "flash" patois of their motley denizens.
In a city plagued by fire, squalor, disease and lawlessness, its religious and political battles stoked by flood of famine-induced Irish immigration, fire-scarred bartender Timothy Wilde is a reluctant recruit to New York's first ramshackle police force, the "copper stars." When the grisly murder of a "kinchin mab" (child prostitute) sparks the discovery of dozens more in a shallow mass-grave, mayhem ensues, and Wilde finds his calling in a frantic pursuit of the culprit before the city explodes in sectarian warfare.
Smart, gritty and funny, with a uniformly memorable cast of characters, Gods is simply spellbinding.
John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 J9
(1 of 23 articles for today)