When solving problems, on what do we train our attention? Where is the telling clue? Right in front of us? Or at the edges of attention?
And if that’s where it is, at the edges, how can we bring it to consciousness? How do we force it up? So often, we realize later that we’ve been aware, all along, of a crucial piece of a puzzle, yet one part of the mind did not let the rest know. How can we get that awareness into the light, and so begin?
That’s the drama beneath the drama of Jo Nesbø’s new novel, The Devil’s Star. Nesbø is a celebrated Norwegian noir writer, a member of the current class of superlative Scandinavians showing the rest of the world how to write a proper mystery. This one, a very good one, stars his lead figure, detective inspector Harry Hole, alcoholic and existential agonizer.
Harry has starred in eight books to date. The Devil’s Star, the fifth, appeared in Norwegian in 2003, and by my count, it is the third to be translated (stylishly here by Don Bartlett) into English. It is set in a sweltering, becalmed Oslo in high summer. A hot, airless city deserted beneath a merciless sun is a fitting backdrop for a wave of killings that hits the town.
Harry is a hunk of human wreckage, a severe alkie, ciggie fiend, loser, and saboteur of human relationships. He’s also a fabulously effective detective, both a penetrating rationalist for whom “there are no paradoxes” and a soul torn wide open to paradoxes, contradictions, and absurd truths. He manages to harness these keenly tuned, and largely contradictory, senses to solve cases.
Actually, there are two mysteries, both of visceral urgency. First, the killings: A dead woman is found with a tiny red diamond, cut into a five-pointed star, beneath an eyelid. (Such perverse details permeate the book.) From this point on, the pentagram, the “devil’s star”, and the number five, assume terrific, fatal significance. Hole sees it early on: The brilliant, twisted killer is toying with his pursuers, planning and executing insoluble crimes while deliberately trailing behind him a path of clues.
Left over from Nemesis, the previous book, which you needn’t have read to enjoy The Devil’s Star, is the death of colleagues while performing their duties. Harry believes a fellow member of the department, rising star Tom Waaler (and what a supremely nasty piece of work he is — he speaks with such poison suasion), is responsible. He has no idea what an abyss this will open up. Especially since Harry’s boss assigns him to work these murders with Waaler.
Add a third mystery: Harry, a man who has never solved himself. Nesbø is good at the grinding spectacle of an alkie trying to kick his addictions, the hangovers, deliriums, nightmares, insomnias, rage storms, surreal dragons of pain and failure. He loves Rakel and her son, Oleg, and he tries and falters throughout the novel to repair his fitful, failed bond with them.
Harry also is driven by a turgid, blurry need to find his man. Or men. And he tries everything, forcing himself to the nexus between rational and irrational, taking an overdose of flunitrazepam to induce a trance while concentrating on a pentagram. This brings on some of the wildest, most superb writing in the book:
He heard the pained scream of the tram, a cat’s footsteps on the roof, and an ominous rustling in the bursting green foliage in the yard… He heard the yard groan, the cracking of the putty in the window frames… He heard the piercing scraping sound of the sheets against his skin and the clatter of his impatient shoes in the hall.
Insights emerge that touch off the mighty second half of The Devil’s Star. He comes to see his revelation as “a gift, theft, an undeserved favor from an angel.”
There’s much such writing in a book marvelously structured, each joint in place as true carpentry. Narration moves among minds, giving us unforgettable pictures of a variety of human lives.
In the last seconds of her life, a bored, airheaded secretary looks in a mirror, rattling on to herself: “Again time seemed to pass slowly. Unendingly slowly. Once more she caught herself thinking that time was ticking away.”
An old lady reminisces about her affair with a Nazi officer. We pass from daydream to daydream, from cop to journalist to actor to guy at the counter. What results is a weave of human lives and consciousness.
It’s a memorable cast of characters, as well, from Harry and Waaler to their long-suffering boss Bjarne Møller, to Harry’s cabbie, drug connection, and fellow classic-rock fan, Øystein, to Beate Lønn, genius and victim. Remorseless, horrified suspense marks the final third of the book, which opens out to post-Communist Europe, the unruly subconscious of the Scandinavian novel.
And everywhere, the incredible, deviling grapple with the edges of (sub)consciousness, the tricks we play to get it to spill the beans, the lengths we’ll go to discover what the hidden part of us already knows — that’s Harry Hole’s constant ordeal, and what has made him, deservedly, one of Europe’s best-known, best-read detective heroes.