Harry Hole slips back into town like an old friend, or maybe more like a prodigal uncle. He chain smokes, thumps around in big boots, and attracts the kind of people who burn up your front lawn. Most view his arrival as something less than good news, but readers should plan on pulling up a seat and strapping in.
Hole is the brooding lead in the smash detective series author Jo Nesbo has set in Oslo, and while his sleuthing skills tilt decidedly toward the intuitive, there is never any shortage of explosive physical violence. Both ingredients are in force in Nesbo’s new novel, “Phantom,’’ but this book lays down important new tracks in the trajectory of a character trying to survive his tortured personality.
For one, Hole is no longer a working detective on the Oslo force, having exiled himself to Hong Kong as a kind of self-flagellation for putting his longtime love, Rakel, at great risk from the homicidal crazies he ends up pursuing.
And it is for Rakel that Hole returns to Oslo, an archangel without a badge, to rescue her son from a murder rap, and to make amends to the boy who he deserted and for whom he was a kind of substitute father. An innocent when Hole was in his life, Oleg is now a drug-addled and love-besotted young man locked up for supposedly killing his buddy, a street dealer in Oslo’s thriving heroin scene.
Of course the drug syndicate also wants Oleg dead, presuming he knows too much about their operations. That gives Hole license to expand his portfolio. He first deputizes himself to absolve Oleg of the murder, and then assumes the role of protector for the boy who still seethes at Hole for abandoning him and his mother.
The story unfolds through two perspectives: a conventional third-person narrative that follows Hole on his bull-like journey, periodically interspersed with first-person memories and observations from the drug dealer as he lays dying on the flop-house floor. Though I’m not a fan of long exposition in italic type, the dealer’s ramblings do more than fill in blanks: They provide another means for Nesbo to explore ancient issues of broken families, of lost sons and derelict fathers (hint, hint).
The plot itself is less outlandish than some in Nesbo’s previous Hole novels — and may ring familiar to some American readers. A powerful strain of heroin has enraptured Oslo’s junkie population — including Oleg and the dying dealer — and the crime boss behind it has deftly co-opted the local government to control the trade; there are corrupt and venal officials, but more important to the conspiracy are the earnest police so eager for peace on the streets and better crime stats they unwittingly enable the kingpin’s scheme.
That this suggests more than a few parallels to the great television series “The Wire’’ can’t be an accident; perhaps it is one master’s nod to another.
While Hole is indisputably the dominant force, the “Phantom’’ features a second character that adds a surprising depth to the novel — and that is, Oslo itself. Harry arrives back in the city after a period of urban renewal and gentrification that reclaimed downtown streets from the junkies and rid Oslo of its reputation as Europe’s drug bazaar. Hole sees Oslo both through fresh eyes and old memories, and it is a testament to Nesbo that neither version of the city comes out bathed in golden light.
While trying to limit his nostalgia for the old days, Hole seems more vexed by the new Oslo. The glittering architecture makes for something of a Potemkin village, with its cast of poseurs and nouveau riche; consequently the modern drug trade, while more organized and circumspect, is no less pernicious and corrupting.
The Oslo depiction adds a contemporary heft to “Phantom’’ that expands Nesbo’s reach. But the last word, as ever, belongs to Harry. He of course cannot just let things rest. This pricking at the scab opens an entirely new wound at book’s end, and will have longtime fans anxious for Nesbo to salve their need for more Harry Hole.