Jo Nesbø’s L’homme chauve-souris
Harry Hole #1
(published 1997 in Norway; 2002 in France)
I had not read Jo Nesbø’s books yet, although not from lack of interest. I had been buying them and even receiving a free copy or two from a friend at Random House of Canada. So I decided I’d better start at the beginning and went with L’homme chauve-souris. This book is not yet available in English but it will probably be soon (the literal translation would be The Bat Man)*. The second Harry Hole book hasn’t been translated yet either (it would be The Cockroaches). Book three was the first one to be translated in English, under the title The Redbreast.
It is interesting to see where it all started for Norwegian author Jo Nesbø and his Oslo investigator Harry Hole (pr. Holy). As a first novel, it gives the reader an impressive plot that has Harry travel to Australia to investigate the death of Inger Holter, a Norwegian woman. Far from his jurisdiction and his comfort zone, Hole will obviously have to work with the Australian police. Nesbø must have been very confident about his own abilities (that or he already knew Australia very well) to decide to set his first novel in such a faraway land. Hole is partnered with detective Andrew Kensington. Andrew, a former boxer known as ‘Tuka’, is aboriginal and as the story develops, his shady past is revealed. Not only that, he’s also good friends with a boxer named Robin “The Murri” Toowomba and a performing artist (a clown in a circus) named Otto Rechtnagel, who also happens to be a transvestite. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it plays a role in the schemes of things.
During the course of the investigation, Hole falls for a beautiful Swedish waitress, Birgitta, who works at the Albury, the club where the victim used to work. During his relationship with her, Hole opens up and we discover some of his troubled past; an accident during a high speed car chase, in Oslo, resulted in the death of Hole’s police partner (who was riding shotgun) and a young man driving another car is now paraplegic. Hole was under the influence of alcohol while driving but the police covered it all up by saying the partner was driving; he was ejected out of the car on impact and Hole was found on the backseat, so no blood testing was done on Hole. We also learn that Hole’s first love, Kristin, killed herself a few years after their relationship had ended. Hole still carries these two events inside him like the weight of the world. He hasn’t had a drink since the accident but he’s not fully recovered yet.
The novel is kept together by the many interesting characters and by their interactions; they often discuss the history of Australia, of its aboriginal people (who were there long before the British), of local food and other subjects. It is certainly one of Nesbø’s gifts to be able to go off tangent here and there without losing the interest of the reader.
Harry Hole is one of the most interesting main characters of today’s crime literature and, although it’s not a necessity, it’s probably because he was so well developed right from the start. He’s complex, with a few obligatory flaws that make him real, but he’s also an average guy who makes mistakes and knows that he can’t solve every problem, even though he’d like to think he could. He’s a realist who hasn’t entirely given up hope on the world in general and on love in particular, but it doesn’t come without angst; Hole realizes that he’s lucky to be a free man and he tries to give back by investing himself wholly in his quest, while never forgetting that his dark shadow follows him everywhere, waiting for a moment of weakness. We could debate also on Harry’s surname, taken as it is written “Hole” and as it is pronounced “Holy”. I won’t start here though.
Although the story is gripping and the suspense keeps mounting, I had some problems reading it, but the fault lies entirely on the translation. The French slang just didn’t suit the story of a Norwegian detective working in Australia; call me picky, but if I want a French polar I won’t read a Norwegian author, and vice versa. (I know there are exceptions). The story is excellent but I wish I could have read it in its original version. The slang, combined with some weird turn of phrases and sentences that read too much like literal translation, took me out of the story many times. The translation was by two persons and that might be the main reason. Every following book in the series was translated by the same person; one of the two translators from the original duo. I’m guessing it’s much better now.
The originality of plot and the many likeable characters of L’homme chauve-souris kept me reading until the end and I wasn’t disappointed that I did.
I’m already reading more of Nesbø and will tell you all about that soon. I also had lots of fun reading one of his YA novels, Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder, but that's for another public and for another post.
You can visit JoNesbø at http://jonesbo.com/ (US) or http://www.jonesbo.co.uk/ (UK) or http://www.piratforlaget.se/forfattare/jo-nesbo (in Swedish) or http://www.jonesbo.it/ in Italian.
JF June 2011
*update fall 2012: the book is now available in English Under the title The Bat.