Sonny Lofthus was a gifted 15-year-old pupil and star wrestler whose world was turned upside-down when his father, a much-admired police officer widely acknowledged as incorruptible, was found dead at home.
Alongside the corpse was a suicide note explaining that he, in fact, was the notorious police department mole who had been feeding information to Oslo’s leading crime lord for years. Sonny escaped his burning shame via heroin, and, at 18, was thrown in prison for two murders.
But as “The Son” opens 12 years later, we discover that there’s something terribly rotten in Oslo’s Staten Maximum Security Prison. From the early pages of the new standalone novel by Jo Nesbo, author of the Harry Hole series, it quickly becomes clear that an extended network of highly placed officials are in on a scheme to use Sonny as a fall guy — over and over — for messy murders they and their cohorts would rather not be connected to.
Sonny, whose drug addiction has been nurtured all this time thanks to a dodgy prison chaplain with a hollowed-out Bible, exudes an odd-yet-serene charisma that has a healing, calming and, better yet, confessional effect on others. (One shady lawyer mockingly refers to him as “Gandhi.”)
The central action of the book is triggered when a fellow prisoner recounts some history with Sonny’s father that potentially casts his death in a new light. Sonny goes cold turkey and engineers an escape from Staten, going on the lam with a renegade kind of justice in mind.
Meanwhile, the police have opened an investigation — that prison chaplain has surfaced, quite dead, in a city center river — and Chief Inspector Simon Kefas of the homicide squad has his hands full with his job, a wife who desperately needs an eye operation, and a new protogee who is ambitious, impatient, and newly transferred from the drug squad.
Kefas is also nearing retirement and looking back with plenty of hindsight on a professional life that’s included a gambling addiction and several career shifts: He’s been a crime-scene technician — he’s a dab hand at assessing bullet trajectories — a tactical investigator (“I guess,” Kefas tells a colleague, “I became more interested in the why rather than the how.”), and endured a stint investigating fraud.
Nesbo is great at rapidly sketching the kind of juicy characters, peripheral or not, that propel an already fast-moving story forward at a pleasing pace. The supporting cast of “The Son” includes Arild Franck, a deeply unpleasant man and assistant prison governor who masterminded Staten’s blueprints — down to each and every fingerprint-operated lock — “with an emphasis on security and efficiency rather than comfort”; Johannes Halden, an older prisoner who loves reading and rereading “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and who’d only ever wanted to be a sea captain but had, long ago, fallen afoul of a Thai smuggling ring; Markus, a lonely, smart kid with bags of curiosity and a strategically placed telescope; and a wealthy homemaker who likes her life just so.
Nesbo’s writing style is visually arresting as always — an earlier standalone novel, “Headhunters,’’ was made into a cracking 2011 movie of the same name, and it’s worth noting that Warner Bros. acquired film rights to “The Son” in 2012 — and he mines real-world changes during the span of Sonny’s incarceration with obvious glee. Sonny makes his way outside prison with impeccable manners, a gentle demeanor, and often palpable bewilderment — he’s still used to a Discman and Internet cafes rather than MP3s and cellphones, to say nothing of having a resilient penchant for Marlboros and Depeche Mode.
Throughout the book, in fact, Nesbo remains as playful as ever. Alongside a story that features horrible baddies and their nasty ways — involving knives, eyelids, and Argentine mastiffs — there are cheeky references to “Men in Black,’’ “The Shining,’’ and Monty Python, as well as a surprisingly tender, taxi-cab conversation about true love. In a novel that’s both deadly serious and seriously sentimental, Nesbo ably rides the slimmest of lines between humanity’s uglier mug and unusual manners of redemption.