The Snowman

By Jo Nesbø

Alfred A. Knopf. 400 pp. $25.95 nolead ends

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Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky


The next Stieg Larsson was once in demand as a teller of ghost stories.

"I thought for a while it was because I was a great storyteller," Jo Nesbø says. "Later on, I think it was my big brother who told me the reason why they wanted me to tell the stories was because when I told them, they could hear the fear in my voice."

Fear and suspense have much to do with the best parts of The Snowman, fifth of the star Norwegian crime writer's novels available in the United States. (A sixth is out in Canada and the U.K.) The serial-killer story hangs on family secrets, gruesome off-stage killings, the protagonist's heroic pluck, and the creepy effigies that give the book its title. Nesbø also has no truck with the idea that hellish deeds are susceptible to easy psychological explanations. Evil, at root, is a mystery.

The Snowman is a sprawling novel, as Nesbø's tend to be, seeming at times less like a coherent whole than like successive versions of a similar tale. Each is the story of a hunt for the person police or the reader are sure is the Snowman, a killer whose victims include young women. (No, the murders are not sex killings.) Each suspect succeeds the last, but the occasional resultant monotony of pacing is leavened by high drama in the episodes themselves, particularly the last two. I'll say no more for fear of giving things away, but think ski jumps, giant snowballs, and a neat little device for dismembering dead cattle.

The real treat in a Nesbø novel is the hero, Oslo Police Inspector Harry Hole (pronounced HEU-leh). He's a more violent maverick than most examples of that familiar crime-fiction type, and he's an alcoholic. He's also a brilliant detective, prone to bursts of intuitive recollection, and appreciative of unusual talents in others. And he pulls off feats of physical and intellectual derring-do that would have a movie star winking and smiling at the camera, only Harry Hole almost never smiles.

Nesbø's other hallmark is the acerbic fun he has attacking Norway's insecurities and pretensions, often by comparisons with the United States. Here, he puts the acid in the mouth of a media celebrity:

" 'Why do you think Norwegians are so skeptical about George Bush, Arve Støp?'

" 'Because we're an overprotected nation that has never fought in any wars. We've been happy to let others do it for us: England, the Soviet Union and America. . . . That's been going on for so long that we've lost our sense of reality and we believe that the earth is basically populated by people who wish us - the world's richest country - well. Norway, a gibbering, pea-brained blonde who gets lost in an alley in the Bronx and is now indignant that her bodyguard is so brutal with muggers.' "

The Nordic countries are hot when it comes to crime fiction. The parlous state of book publishing and the phenomenal success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels have publishers and critics twisting themselves into knots to anoint a new Stieg Larsson. Nesbø, a better contender than most for the crown, is both dubious and fatalistic about the idea of a Nordic crime wave:

"I am part of that whether I consider myself part of it or not because it's sort of a commercial label. It doesn't necessarily have much to do with Scandinavian writers having the same style. When I've been asked what I think are the similarities between Scandinavian authors, I would say that they were either from Denmark, Norway or Sweden."

So, is Jo Nesbø the next Stieg Larsson? He's probably a better writer than Larsson was. But he's no Arnaldur Indriðason.

Peter Rozovsky is an Inquirer copy editor. He writes about international crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders, www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com.