The Leopard
By Jo Nesbø
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Knopf. 517 pp. $26.95

The horror, the horror. Joseph Conrad knew the savagery simmering in the heart of darkness, and Norwegian noir-master Jo Nesbø returns and returns to it because his mission is to show readers just how depraved human beings can be, and how noirer than noir a Norwegian author can be in this, our global village of crime fiction.

At the heart of The Leopard is not a leopard, but a Leopold's Apple - a torture device designed by a 19th-century Belgian to scare the diamonds out of recalcitrant black warlords in the Congo. Since anyone who reads this book must get past the first scene, I don't feel bad revealing that it depicts the hideous death by torture of an innocent woman, subjected to a Leopold's Apple by a serial killer. (Visit Google and you'll learn that the Leopold's Apple is a piece of fiction devised by Nesbø himself, not invented by the aforementioned Belgian creep.)

The writing in The Leopard is awesome. The ironic deflations, twisty plot, and grisly action keep a reader riveted to the page. But in its treatment of female characters - especially in its systematic, baroque, Byzantine dismemberment and degrading of their bodies - the novel is, perhaps unwittingly, a moral slough, and it brings up larger, similar issues in the work of other writers, one of them also a Scandinavian. I don't know if there's a link, but I think Stieg Larsson of Dragon Tattoo fame, for all the touted feminism of his novels, actually created Lisbeth Salander so bad things could happen to her.

The link to the Congo in The Leopard is apt. So, too, are the links to other former colonies - Hong Kong, Australia - where Harry Hole, the intrepid, banged-up, but indestructible-as-the-Terminator Norwegian cop, travels. If Nesbø has a mission, it's to have us see the connection between European colonizers and the evil they sowed.

In that sense, at least, Nesbø is less reprehensible than Larsson, whose primary goal seemed to be torture and rape of women on the page, all with the pretense of dispassion and moral judgment. (I even detect a degree of enjoyment. Consider: In the first Dragon Tattoo volume, Salander is beaten up and sodomized. Then we segue to some titillating - for Larsson - lesbian sex scenes. Then he defies logic to gratify the male fantasy further: Salander suddenly switches her sexual allegiance in order to ravish the paunchy, slovenly, much-like-the-author journalist hero of the Millennium novels.)

But back to The Leopard. I stand by my sense that the book exists partly to subject women to symbolic degradation, via plot device and harrowing precision of detail. It's brutalizing, and even in this brilliantly plotted, exquisitely researched book, I can't escape the conviction that nothing can really justify it.

Still, I have never read a more suspenseful book. I'm a fairly experienced literary detective; I can usually figure out whodunit long before the denouement of a mystery. But not here. Nesbø plays with ironic deflation like no author I've ever seen. He sets you up to believe a terrible thing is going to happen and then - it's not Freddy Krueger about to stab you to death, it's the cat knocking a bowl of milk off the counter. You laugh at your nervousness, and relax. Five pages later, Krueger impales you.

Nor will you be able to figure out who the killer is. Nesbø has more twists in his repertoire than Chubby Checker. If Larsson strikes me as a fat schmo who hated women but also longed to get jiggy with them, Jo Nesbø is a different type of man altogether. Consider his jacket photo: sleek as an otter, handsome in a close-cropped, ex-con kind of way. Clearly, he's deeply intelligent, and writes like an angel. As in Lucifer. Strangely, there's virtually no crime in Norway, especially not of the serial-killer variety. Anders Behring Breivik, the apparent mass killer of last summer, was as traumatic as he was to Norwegian society because he is so outside, so little representative of it.

But there are always dark hearts, like the killer's in this book. Our existence is a fight for gain, says the killer's heart, and whoever cannot kill his neighbor has no right to an existence. Killing is, after all, only hastening the inevitable. Death allows no exceptions, which is good, because life is pain and suffering. As in most of the novels he's in, Harry Hole dwells with this philosophy a while, and, to tell the truth, nothing comes to disabuse either him, or the killer, or us of it. That, too, is morally horrific.

It's all so black and white, just as our binary human minds want to believe: " 'Everything starts with love. Hatred is just the other side of the coin.' " And of course, it's a dog-eat-dog world:

Confirmation that from the selection of men who wanted her - in practice, any heterosexual man with good eyesight - she had chosen him. Confirmation that he was the leader of the pack, the alpha male, the male with the first claim to mate with the females.

We are told that serial killers, and the vicarious thrills they give their readers, "experience the joy, the ecstasy, of sadism."

The Leopard is a great novel, and if it doesn't presage the end of Western civilization, I don't know what does.

Susan Balée's "Charles Dickens the Show (But-Don't-Tell) Man" is a featured essay in the Winter 2012 issue of the Hudson Review.