Jillwilson's Reviews > Panserhjerte

Panserhjerte by Jo Nesbø
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Mar 28, 12

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Read in March, 2012

I’m an erratic reader of crime fiction. Mostly, I like to read it at Christmas – where I suspect it works at sublimating my desire to murder my family. Right now I’m in the middle of a Norwegian crime spree courtesy of Jo Nesbo. What I like about his books is what I like about most detective novels – the character of the sleuth or anti-hero detective. In many ways, the plot is less relevant though I like things to make sense, to add up. I like to think about “whodunit” but this is secondary to the anti-hero’s journey.

In The Leopard, Harry Hole (pronounced ‘Hooler’), the detective, is holed up in Hong Kong at the beginning of the story. He’s in a bad way; bashed up by a triad over gambling debts and a cosy little relationship with an opium pipe. In a way, I wanted him to stay there. Kowloon is vivid in my head, after my recent visit there and it seemed like the perfect destination for a man like Hole – so rife with possibilities. But he is bundled onto a plane by a young Norwegian female detective who inevitably provides some other ‘rife with possibilities’ moments.

The novel actually begins with a torture scene. I was thinking quite a lot of things while reading it. How often this genre starts with this kind of scene – the reader is placed immediately in a scene of great danger – portrayed either exclusively through the panicked eyes of the victim, or the paranoid nastiness of the killer. The scene is often so strange and disconnected from the subsequent narrative, which usually defaults to something way more domestic, that I usually forget that I have read it. It’s never my favourite part of the book, even though I suspect that the writer will have laboured over making it gripping. The opening scene of this novel is graphic and horrible. I felt voyeuristic reading it (as I did with a couple of other violent scenes in the novel). In searching for a novel kind of torture, I think that Nesbo has stretched too far. It’s likely that the whole thriller/detective genre has run out of realistically gruesome new ways to die. One reviewer, Patrick Anderson, wrote of this scene: “The novel opens with a four-page exercise in horror. A young woman — captive, confused, desperate — is in the grip of a fiendish instrument of torture. As we watch, this device inflicts a terrible death on her. This is a brilliant scene, in its way, but it’s also stunningly sadistic, both in terms of what the killer is doing to the woman and what the author is doing to the reader.”

However much of the novel is devoted to Harry and his struggle with officialdom, with the politics operating between two institutions fighting for jurisdiction over murders in Norway. These, for me, are the most satisfying parts of the novel, just as, in a drama series like ‘The Wire’, the political machinations, treachery and power plays provide the gripping underpinning of the drama. The parts that I don’t like are the most dramatic: an avalanche, a volcano, a trip into Colonel Kurtz territory in the darkest Congo. I just don’t buy the melodrama of these events. But I’ll wear them because I’m a Harry fan and I do like a good murder. Anderson, the aforementioned reviewer, was not as kind, but I did enjoy the way he described The Leopard: “Now, alas, I must report that ‘The Leopard’ is a bloated, near-total disaster. Reading it, I came to imagine myself trapped in a vast, fetid swamp from which I might never emerge.”

The reviewer in The Independent, Paul Binding, writes about the ways in which family genes and upbringing become a theme in ‘The Leopard’. “Nesbø's insight into inherited conflict – of which this novel affords a disturbing double instance – must emanate from his own declared family background. His father fought for the Germans in the Second World War, his mother for the Resistance, this duality being the emotional foundation of The Redbreast.
Nesbø's imaginative preoccupation with division, above all in the individual, makes him a distinctively Norwegian writer. His mentors – Ibsen, Hamsun - have magisterially contrasted the wild with the harmonious, the lover or explorer with the conscientious citizen, the stern moralist with the easy-going hedonist. This distinguishes him from the Swedes Mankell and Larsson, to whom he is so often compared.”

Finally, the other thing that the opening scene made me think about was the absence of torture from Australian detective novels. I need to say that I have not read really widely of the entire genre but within my experience, we kill quite quickly and efficiently for reasons other than straight-out sadism (I’m recalling a quite bizarre and stupid scene from Peter Temple’s otherwise very fine novel ‘The Broken Shore’ as an exception.) Perhaps I am wrong – happy to be corrected. Our sadistic murderers tend to be more of the Wolf Creek mode – their place is in the outback or Bangalo State Forest. Our detectives are slightly less anti-hero – Cliff Hardy, Murray Whelan, Jack Irish – more Diver Dan than Harry Hole. If Paul Binding is right, that Nesbo is preoccupied with ‘division’ in the individual; that is a trait less obvious in Australian protagonists – who tend to be outsiders, but intact outsiders without the self-destructive aspects of a character like Hole. I will keep thinking about this.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Megan (new)

Megan Smith You do have a way with words Jewel. Makes me want to read this. Love LB x

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