Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Jo Nesbø has become one of the most popular crime writers of the last fifteen years or so. It’s certainly more than about time I included one of his novels in this feature; so, by popular demand, let’s turn today’s spotlight on The Bat, the first of Nesbø’s Harry Hole series.
As the story begins, Hole has just arrived in Sydney. He’s been sent there to observe and act as a liaison as Australian authorities look into the rape and murder of a twenty-three-year-old Norwegian national, Inger Holter. Head of the Surrey Hills Crime Squad Neil McCormack makes it clear that Hole is welcome, and his status as a fellow cop and an expert respected; but he is there only to observe.
Hole is paired with Andrew Kensington, with whom he soon develops a solid working relationship. The two start work on the case, beginning with whatever they can learn about the victim’s lifestyle, employment, friends, and so on.
One of their contacts is Birgitta Enquist, originally from Sweden, who worked with Inger at a bar called the Albury. She and Hole soon take an interest in each other, and both are of course interested in finding out who killed Inger Holter.
Hole and Kensington look into the victim’s personal life; they find that she’d been seeing a drug dealer named Evans White, who looks like a good candidate for the murder. But at the same time, another police team member does some background research on other cases. It turns out that there’ve been other, similar rape cases, and seven murder cases. The one thing all of the victims have in common is that they were blonde. No-one wants to think of the possibility, but there is a chance that Inger’s death is the work of a serial rapist who sometimes kills.
If White is innocent, the task is to find a person who could have had contact with all of the victims, and Hole, Kensington and the other police try to do just that. The rapes and murders have occurred in different places all over the country, so it’s difficult to join the proverbial dots. But little by little, the team finds a connection. As they get close to the truth, they learn just how dangerous this killer can be. In the end, though, and after some wrong turns, Hole finds out who’s responsible for Inger Horten’s murder.
One of the important elements in this novel is the information it provides about Hole’s personal backstory. As fans of this series know, this is the first in the Harry Hole series, but not the first to be translated into English. For that reason, it ‘fills in the gaps’ for those who may have read other books in the series. We learn, for instance, that Hole is trying to redeem himself after a tragic incident that cost him his reputation. For that reason, he’s given up drinking (well, at the beginning of the novel) and is trying to put his professional life back together. We also learn a bit about his personal life. Oh, and for those who’ve wondered, we learn how to pronounce his surname.
Readers who started the Harry Hole series with a later novel (say, The Snowman) will likely find that his character isn’t as developed here as it is in those later stories. Like most series’ protagonists, Hole has evolved over time. On the one hand, this may disappoint readers who expect the Hole they’ve ‘met’ later in the series. On the other, it is an opportunity to get to know him from the beginning.
In an unusual start to a series, this novel doesn’t take place in Hole’s ‘home base’ of Oslo. Rather, it takes place mostly in Sydney. Readers familiar with the city will find place names and so on familiar. And in the course of the investigation, Hole visits some parts of the city that are nice…and some that aren’t.
Also in the course of the investigation, Hole meets a variety of offbeat, ‘fringe’ sorts of characters. There are clowns, prostitutes and their pimps, transvestites, and drug dealers, just to name a few. There aren’t a lot of ‘everyday’ (if there is even such a thing) characters in the novel. Readers who prefer stories that share the everyday culture of a place will notice this.
The main plot has to do with the death of Inger Horten and search for her killer. But there are other tangents in the novel as well. One, for instance, is the story of Hole’s youth, his relationship with a former lover, and the tragedy that he’s trying to cope with as he solves this case. Another has to with some Dreamtime stories that Hole learns from some Aboriginal characters (including his partner Kensington). Still another has to do with his relationship with Birgitta, and what he learns about her backstory. Readers who prefer their novels to focus on one plot line will notice this. It’s also worth noting that those tangents are interspersed in the main story; readers not accustomed to this sort of story structure will want to pay close attention so as to follow along as the story lines unfold.
This is a police procedural, so one aspect of the novel is the way the police form and follow up on their theories about the murder. In this case, Hole is a foreigner in the group. He’s there ostensibly because he’s an expert, and also because the victim was Norwegian. So on the one hand, it’s logical that the local police would want his input. On the other, it’s their patch, and some of Hole’s ideas turn out to be very, very wrong. Readers who are very accustomed to police procedurals will notice that this group of police doesn’t react in the way that most police would i.e. taking Hole off the case, or at least making other choices. Those who’d rather not suspend much disbelief will notice this as well. That said though, there are several twists and turns in the plot because of those ideas. Readers who don’t mind suspending their disbelief for ‘plot jolts’ will likely be pleased.
There is violence in the novel, and some of it is brutal (it is a Harry Hole story…). Some of it involves Hole himself, too. Readers who are looking for a quiet, more traditional story will be disappointed. But if you’re familiar with this series, you probably already know to expect some brutality.
The Bat introduces readers to a by-now iconic fictional sleuth. It takes place mostly in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, and features some very unusual characters who live ‘on the fringe.’ But what’s your view? Have you read The Bat? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 11 May/Tuesday 12 May – Dancing to ‘Almendra’ – Mayra Montero
Monday 18 May/Tuesday 19 May – The Devil’s Making – Seán Haldane
Monday 25 May/Tuesday 26 May – In Her Blood – Lisa Unger