Thursday, May 5, 2011

NEMESIS by Jo Nesbo - Reviewed by Gary Carden

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo
New York: HarperColllins, Publishers
$25.99 - 474 pages

“Losing your life is not the worst thing that can happen...
The worst thing is to lose your reason for living.”
Nemesis, p. 161

Kind hearts, allow me to introduce Police Detective, Harry Hole. Let me warn you in advance, he is an alcoholic who manages to keep his job in the House of Pain (Oslo’s Robbery Division) by cunning and a talent for catching elusive criminals - a fact that pleases his superiors and angers many of his career-minded peers. Harry prefers to work alone and has a reputation for using “unorthodox methods.” Although his friends frequently describe him as “tall, sullen, blond ... and ugly,” he maintains relationships with women that tend to be perverse, passionate and downright disturbing.

At the present time, the Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo, has completed a half-dozen thrillers that feature Harry Hole. As a result, Nesbo has become the most popular detective fiction writer in Europe. Due to the complexities of publishing (and translating) Norwegian fiction into English, Harry Hole’s following in America has been delayed. The first novels, The Redbreast, The Devil’s Star, The Leopard, The Redeemer and Nemesis have become astonishingly popular throughout Europe and although they are now available on Amazon, some titles are still difficult to acquire. The advance sales demand for Nesbo’s last two books, Snowman and Phantom, has already made them best sellers, even though they will not be released in America until May (Snowman) and June (Phantom).

Amid a lot of promotional hysteria that calls Nesbo “the new Steig Larsson”
(in this reviewer’s opinion, he is much better than that) and critical essays about the “Norwegian Invasion of crime literature,” it is clear that the Harry Hole novels herald an innovative and appealing development in crime literature. But how are these novels different? Is it Harry’s unique character or Nesbo’s gift for descriptive details?

This review focuses on Nemesis simply because this is the only Harry Hole mystery that this crime fiction fan could find . (The others are on back-order.) Nemesis is second or third in the Harry Hole series and as a result, a new reader may feel like he has entered in the middle of a movie. There are references to events that occurred several years ago, including the unsolved murder of Harry’s lover, Ellen Gjelten - a tragedy that is partially responsible for Harry’s dark moods and alcoholism. There are also a number of reoccurring regular characters: Inspector Tom Waaler, a sinister police officer who has created a kind of vigilante squad of maverick cops, and who hates/fears Harry. (Tom may be involved in Ellen’s death) and Rune Avarsson, an envious administrator who bitterly resents Harry’s success in solving crimes. However, Nemesis easily stands alone since Jo Nesbo possesses a remarkable talent for sustaining suspense while developing an intricate plot filled with obscure facts about forensic medicine, astronomy, psychology, current “pop” music and cooking.

In Nemesis, Harry Hole must solve two murders: the first involves the shooting of a female bank employee, Stine Grette, during a robbery. Harry is perplexed by the fact that the murder appears unnecessary since the surveillance cameras in the bank revealed that the masked robber had acquired the money...yet he shoots the bank employee anyway. The second murder is a bit more personal. A former girlfriend of Harry’s, Anna Bethsen, (an unstable, failed artist), invites him to dinner. During the meal, he is drugged and dumped outside Anna’s apartment. When he regains consciousness, Harry has no memory of his dinner with Anna. When he returns to Anna’s (locked) apartment, he finds her dead in what appears to be a suicide. Notifying the police with an anonymous call, Harry silently watches as an inept investigation closes, finding the cause of death to be suicide. Although Harry suspects that Anna was murdered, he also realizes if the case is reopened, he will the prime suspect.

Adding to the intricate threads of the plot, Harry finds that the burglary division has recently employed Beate Lonn, the daughter of a murdered policeman who possesses a rare talent called “fusiform gyrus” which means that she can recognize and recall the details of every human face she has ever seen. Beate is assigned to work with Harry. (Yes, she may have seen Tom Waaler someplace he should not have been.) In addition, Beate has a condition called “Setesdal's Twitch,” which I will refrain from defining since it would definitely “spoil” the conclusion of Nemesis. (I hope that made you curious!)

Gradually, Harry begins to suspect that the two murders are connected. As he delves into the history of bank robbing in Oslo, he discovers that the most successful robberies have been carried out by gypsies! In fact, the leader of Oslo’s most efficient bank robbing team, a man called Roskol, continues to plan and execute robberies from prison where he sits each day playing chess. To complicate matters further, Harry learns that Roskol allowed himself to be convicted for a crime that he did not commit because he is doing “penance.” At this point, Harry begins to ponder the close association between vengeance and love, especially in his own life.

There are far too many tension-ridden episodes in
Nemesis to discuss in this review. However, among the most riveting are Harry’s “unofficial” trip to an unpleasant little town in Brazil to find a mysterious gypsy who may (or may not) be Roskol’s brother. Also, shortly after Anna’s death, Harry begins receiving taunting emails from someone who knows all about his dinner with Anna as well as a disconcerting amount of personal information about Harry. A further complication develops when Harry’s arch enemy, Tom Waaler develops an interest in Beate and decides to seduce her (while “Purple Rain” plays in the background). At the same time, Waaler devises a “foolproof” plot to destroy Harry. The plot becomes boxes within boxes within boxes.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Nemesis, is Nebo’s ability to capture the lives and personalities of his characters through dialogue that blends discussions about suicide (Albert Camus), American movies (“The Shining”, “BayWatch” (David Hasslehoff) the Horse-head Nebula and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” In fact, the discussions of music, abnormal psychology and a wealth of tantalizing knowledge definitely serve to make this Harry Hole thriller “a thinking man’s (or woman’s) murder mystery.” ... I guess I’m hooked.


  1. I've just finish reading "Nemesis", and found it to be a gripping novel from start to finish. The lead character, Harry Hole, is something of an anti-hero, the doggedly determined inspector who never gives up. In many ways he reminded of Harry Callaghan, portrayed in the "Dirty Harry" films of the 70s by Clint Eastwood, but minus the Magnum and shoot ups. The character of Beate Lønn, who becomes Harry's side kick in the novel is a truly fascinating one, vulnerable and endearing, yet as tough as a diamond. And the descriptions of the city of Oslo, Norway, are absolutely spot on.. I live in Oslo and found myself relating completely to it.
    A must read if crime thrillers are your thing, highly recommended!

  2. I totally agree. I feel like reading every Harry Hole novel, but I guess I'll try to show some common sense and restrict myself to two. Maybe in a couple of months, I can do another without looking like an overly devoted fan

  3. Nemesis is a great book. I really enjoyed it, but the ending was spoilt for me because I couldn't remember what the setedsal twitch condition Beate Lonn has is. I've looked back through the past passages - something I find I have to do a lot with Jo Nesbo books - I can't find the bit which explains it Can anyone help?

  4. Dying to read The Phantom, very sad when I finished the Leopard. I may develop a relationship with a Norwegian so as they can translate it for me before it's published in english!! pablo.

  5. Carmel (Dublin Ireland)January 10, 2012 at 5:39 PM

    There's only one Jo Nesbo and only one Harry Hole however, I've just finished Mercy by Scandi-lit new kid on the block Jussi Adler-Olsen - it's Danish Crime Fiction at it's best!! Recommended by a Nesbo fan patiently awaiting UK release of The Phantom...

  6. The reviewer needs to read his book more carefully. Hole did not go to Brazil to track down somebody who may or may not be Roskol's brother, he went there to track down somebody who WAS the brother-in-law of the woman killed in the bank robbery (ie., the woman's husband's brother.)

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  15. I have just finished Joe Nesbo's NEMESIS and thoroughly enjoyed it. This makes my sixth Nesbo (Harry Hole) book having also finished The Redbreast, The Snowman, The Leopard, The Devil's Star and Phantom. I am totally addicted.

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  22. I finished the book last night, and I am really confused about one plot point. It has to do with Beate's condition and how that worked in the end. I know you didn't want to give spoilers, but if there is some way to email me the explanation, I would appreciate it!

  23. Ellen Gjelten was Harry's former partner. Lover? I don't think so. Could be wrong. Setesdal twitch has to do with Huntingdon's [sic] Disease, which afflicts Beate. Harry and Beate discuss her affliction earlier in the book.