If the first chapter of THE LEOPARD had been my introduction to the books of Jo Nesbo or his character, Harry Hole, I would not have finished that chapter, let alone tried any of his other books. Violence is to be expected in this series. The first chapter of THE LEOPARD brings violence in the series to a level beyond that of any other book I read to the end. It is cruel, it is brutal, and it places the violator beyond redemption. It is the definition of cold-blooded murder.
These writers from Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden produce what has come to be known as Scandinavian noir. From the point of view of a reader they should be well-known as brilliant. As a group, and individually, they write some of the best police procedurals available and not enough of their books are available in English.
I have read all the Harry Hole books available. They are tightly written, have intricate and complicated plots, place the reader deep into the culture of Norway, and have a brooding, alcoholic, violent, and brilliant detective at the center. Harry is committed to his job on the homicide squad, committed to bringing the guilty to justice, and willing to work within the parameters of the law. If, on occasion, he is required to use his own judgement, he does so to bring about a resolution that favors the victim. Jo Nesbo has created a character who sees violence as a sometimes necessary means toward the right end.
I kept going beyond that first chapter because I knew that it would be worth reading. And, Nesbo taunts the reader with hints about something that happened at a party on night a few years before.
The story opens with Harry hiding in Hong Kong, working diligently to commit suicide by booze. At the end of the previous book in the series, THE SNOWMAN, Harry has succeeded in capturing a serial killer and in the process nearly bringing about the deaths of the woman he wants to marry and her son. For their safety, they leave their home to start a life in a new place, a place that Harry can’t even know. He has resigned from the police department in Oslo and he never plans on returning to his homeland. Then, a police officer with whom Harry has a nodding acquaintance finds him in Hong Kong. Gunnar Hagan, Harry’s boss, has sent Kaja Solness to bring Harry back to Norway. Olav Hole, Harry’s father is dying, and he wants to see his son. Harry returns without question, wanting to achieve the closeness, in the time before Olav dies, that they hadn’t been able to achieve when they were both much younger.
Harry learns that Kaja was sent to bring him back to his father but there is a larger motive. There is a serial killer targeting women and Harry is the only one with the skills to find him. The police are at a loss as to where to begin looking for the commonality that would have defined the group to which the murdered women belonged. They were from different social, financial, and education backgrounds. There was a wide age spread. How had they come to the attention of a man who did not bring death gently into the night. Then, the bodies of men are found. This can make it more easy to find that common ground or it can make it more difficult. Harry has neither the skills nor the patience to do the research necessary to make the connections but he knows two people who do. The first is police officer Kaja Sollness, the same officer who had the skills and patience to track him to Hong Kong, and Katrina Bratt, Harry’s one time partner. Katrina was so damaged in the Snowman case that she has been is a psychiatric hospital. She has improved so much that she is well enough to leave, to return to her normal life, but she is frightened by the world outside the hospital walls and she chooses to stay where she feels safe. She is brilliant and intuitive and Harry persuades her to help him. He will provide her with the computers and internet connections she needs if she will use her skills and talent to give him the information he needs to find “Prince Charming” before he kills again.
Harry is outside the police band of brothers but he is respected for his single-minded determination and his intuitive grasp of connections. But the police are in the midst of a consolidation and Mikael Bellman, a man whose ambition is almost as great as Harry’s intellect, claims the case falls in his jurisdiction. Harry is on the case because Gunnar Hagan asked him to get involved not because he wants to be back on the force. Bellman sees the case as the umbrella that will carry him to the top on his own hot air. Harry is looking for a killer; Bellman is looking for a promotion.
The pressure on the police and on the people of Oslo is increased exponentially when one of the victims is Marit Olsen, a member of Parliament. Merit had a bodyguard. How could the killer get near enough to kidnap her? How are these victims connected? In a strange way, the group is too random to be truly random.
THE LEOPARD is told in 513 pages. On occasion, I have read a book of that length in a day. It took me three days to finish this one. “She couldn’t hear anything, but she could sense a presence. Like a leopard. Someone had told her leopards made so little noise they could sneak right up to their prey in the dark. They could regulate their breathing so that it was in tune with yours. Could hold their breath when you held yours.” This explains, in one way, how the killer connects to the title. There is another way in which they connect. The leopard stalks his prey, shows no mercy, and leaves his human prey torn and unrecognizable. The human killer does the same.
I would not have become less engrossed in the story if I had skipped the first chapter. The other ninety-five chapters plus epilogue are sprinkled with other passages describing the violence inflicted by the killer. I was prepared for this violence by the first chapter. Others may not find chapter one as brutal as I did.
Some reviewers, professional and amateur, believe the book benefited by its length, that every detail was necessary. The story touches down in the Congo, Norway, Hong Kong, and back and forth again. Some of it is germane to the story, some of it isn’t. Nesbo has a large international fan base which is well-deserved. THE LEOPARD is certainly one of the best thrillers of the year. It is due to be published on December 13. It will make an appreciated Christmas gift for Jo Nesbo fans, for fans of Scandinavian writers, and for everyone who loves crime/mystery/ thriller fiction. The first chapter is unforgettable, which is why I wish I hadn’t read it. I am happy that I read the other ninety-four chapters plus epilogue.