By Jo Nesbø
Knopf. 549 pp. $28.95
Reviewed by Richard Lipez
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to recognize the bad karma accumulating year by year for the Opgard brothers, Roy and Carl, in The Kingdom, a dense, suspenseful bundle of Norwegian noir by Jo Nesbø, the author of the esteemed Harry Hole police detective series. Melancholy, alcoholic Harry is nowhere to be found in the remote village of Os (not a typo). Instead, it’s Kurt Olsen, the equally downcast town sheriff, who is certain these two generally well-liked village chaps — their parents died when the boys were in their late teens and Dad’s beloved Cadillac DeVille flew off a cliff — are clever homicidal connivers. The constable is right, of course, for what little good his investigatory brainpower does him against a couple of sociopaths.
At 549 pages, The Kingdom (named for the Opgard’s family farm) feels as much like a miniseries as a novel. You’re so curious about what the next episode will bring that even if you’ve stepped away from the book for a meal or a good night’s sleep, you feel like one of those 19th-century readers who stormed New York Harbor, awaiting the arrival of a new installment of a Dickens novel.
The sometimes droll, sometimes eerily affectless, occasionally enraged narrator is Roy, the older brother, a mechanic who runs the Os convenience store and gas station. A few people in town think Roy is "in love with" the younger brother he protects from bullies and other annoying villagers. It soon becomes apparent, though, that the ongoing nonconsensual incest that sets an increasingly ugly chain of events in motion is of a different sort.
While brutal emotional injury is at the center of the novel, social change is what keeps the Opgard family saga churning. A new expressway threatens to bypass the town and leave livelihoods in the lurch. It's Carl who comes back from college in Minnesota and a real estate career in Toronto with a plan to save Os' economy. He wants to build a 200-room tourist hotel on the Opgard grazing land, and his scheme is to finance the project with local villagers putting up their property as collateral. If you think uh-oh, you're right.
I have no doubt there are some lovely people in Norwegian mountain villages, but the people of Os are by and large a sad lot — gossips, drunks, molesters, shysters, egomaniacs, jealous lovers, arsonists, and people willing to shove an honest man off a cliff to keep a secret.
Scandinavian noir is famous for its gore, and while The Kingdom isn’t lacking in that department — a man is scalped, and his hair placed over the head of someone else to disguise their identity — most of what’s grisly here is psychological. There’s some excellent Albee-esque relational to-ing and fro-ing among Roy, Carl, and Shannon, the wife Carl brings to Os from Canada. Roy falls head over heels for his sister-in-law, and she for him, and their trysts are both wild and fraught.
Most of Nesbø's characters are wracked with guilt — for good reason. Roy tells himself that "a minor theft, a trivial rejection — you never get over. They're like lumps in the body that get encapsulated but can still ache on cold days, and some nights suddenly begin to throb." Carl, though, is less bothered by conscience. Of selling one's soul, he says, "It's always a buyer's market when it comes to souls."
Why do mentally healthy readers want to spend time with these godawful people? Writers like Nesbø have that knack for instilling just enough humanity in their miscreants that we keep hoping they might, if not repent, then at least acknowledge their moral scuzziness. Or, being morally imperfect ourselves, we sort of hope they don’t get caught — at least not yet. Think Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Walter White in Breaking Bad.
Buddhists — and any number of Presbyterians — will know that The Kingdom can only end in one way, and most souls will find Nesbø’s finish both a relief and — don’t look while I flagellate myself — a bit of a disappointment.
Not at all disappointing is the great bulk of this generally mesmerizing novel, including its occasional wit. Such as a scene where a corpse is being disposed of in a grotesque manner while the car radio in the background blasts Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It’s one of the great moments in modern crime fiction.