There is a tidy little set piece more than halfway through “Police,’’ Jo Nesbo’s latest Harry Hole thriller. Coming across potential clues in a suspect’s hotel room, Hole’s team engages in a spontaneous brainstorming session. The conversation quickly shifts into overdrive, hurtling forward at a breathtakingly smart, instinct-and-impulse-driven pace with colleagues finishing each others’ sentences and thoughts in a scene that’s pure pleasure to read.
After nine previous novels featuring inspector Harry Hole, this pyrotechnically assured style of writing should come as no surprise, but the delight in reading a new Nesbo novel is that he never fails to surprise. This, after all, is a writer who, with his latest police procedural, will ensure that you never look at a certain domestic appliance in quite the same way again.
As “Police’’ opens, picking up after the deadly shooting at the end of 2012’s “Phantom,’’ Hole is notably absent — and will remain so without explanation for about half the book (a surprise in itself and a mystery to be unwound). His crime-squad workmates are left to their own devices, triggering a sense of restlessness as well as an underlying determination to embody Hole’s exemplary lead.
Consulting psychologist Stale Aune, who’s demoted himself to therapist, spends much of his clients’ sessions mentally kicking a wall and recalling what he relished about his work as an on-call profiler for the police: “Did he miss profiling sick souls who killed people with such gruesome acts of brutality that he was deprived of sleep at night? . . . Did he miss Hole turning him into the inspector’s image, a starved, exhausted, monomaniacal hunter? Snapping at everyone who disturbed his work on the one thing he thought had any significance, slowly but surely alienating colleagues, family and friends? . . . He missed the importance of it.”
Hole’s other associates are equally unmoored: Gunnar Hagen, head of the squad, currently bumping heads in a most frustrating manner with new police chief Mikael Bellman; special detective Katrine Bratt, who plays, literally, by the numbers and who watches “Breaking Bad,’’ “Singin’ in the Rain,’’ “Sunset Boulevard,’’ and “Toy Story 3’’ in her downtime; Beate Lonn, the forensic expert who is blessed — and cursed — with a superhuman fusiform gyrus, guaranteeing her instant facial recognition, even if someone’s altered their looks with plastic surgery; and the red-haired and eagle-eyed forensics officer Bjorn Holm.
When it becomes clear that someone is killing police officers — pulverizing them, actually — at former murder investigation sites, the crew quietly pulls together into a rogue group, breaking away from official police structure and drawing on everything they’ve gleaned from Hole’s tactics as well as implementing a few of their own.
It’s a dizzyingly taut feat of storytelling. The murders are grisly, gruesome, and gory without overwhelming the narrative, and Nesbo deftly juggles multiple plotlines using terrific sleights of hand to gradually reveal where they might intersect while lovingly rounding out each of his characters, heroes and villains alike.
Whether describing a biker’s technique and lactic-acid sensation, the overpowering atmosphere of a drug den, the auditory reactions of a detective who thinks he may have heard a little something, the trainee police officer you really want to avoid, or the ways in which two childhood friends still dance around each other professionally and personally in adulthood, Nesbo’s got mesmerizing descriptive powers, and longtime translator Don Bartlett ensures that the images vibrate energetically on the English-language page. (I relished one character’s unfettered delight, captured with a “smile that just kept spreading across his face like a freshly cracked egg in the pan” and, in a completely different scene, the final moments of a petty, lowlife criminal: “Then — like the curtain falling after a pathetic, tormented performance lasting forty-two years — a great darkness descended.”)
In a story that encompasses political corruption, drugs, prison politics, and questionable police action as well as downright sociopathic behavior, Nesbo’s trademark intensity never flags throughout the roller-coaster waves of this highly enjoyable ride.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic.