Jo Nesbø does not write like someone who enjoys playing with language and indulging in a bit of purple prose. His writing is devoid of frippery, excessive verbiage, lengthy inner monologues, subliminal messaging, complicated techniques or even particularly fancy choice of words. He writes detective fiction and thrillers, and contrary to the plot of this novel, Blood on Snow, his writing style is so plain as to be spartan. In this, the first of two “Olav Johansen” novels, both published in 2015, the story of his “fixer”, Olav Johansen, is presented very simply, straightforwardly, even pithily, using direct first person narration. Olav Johansen is smart, but flawed, dyslexic, weedy-looking, and a confirmed romantic. And like many romantic heroes, his sentimentality eventually gets him killed. (Though in the follow-up novel, Midnight Sun, he is alive…?!)
Plot and writing style
But while the character of Johansen goes about saving, bedding and being lied to by the wife of his gang-leader or “alternative economy developer” boss, Nesbø manages to keep the tension in the plot by building in a little twist or surprise every so often, just to keep the reader on their toes, and the surprising ending, saved until the last four pages of the novel, turns the plot and the character upside down.
The book was an airport purchase, when I was getting really bored and tired at Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik, Iceland. I was hoping for some cool, pared-down Scandinavian Noir, and snow and Oslo sounded appealing in the summer heat radiating off the surrounding lava fields. The opening lines, in particular, sounded temptingly cold:
“The snow was dancing like cotton wool in the light of the street lamps. Aimlessly, unable to decide whether it wanted to fall up or down, jus letting itself be driven by the hellish, ice-cold wind that was sweeping in from the great darkness covering the Oslo fjord. Together they swirled, wind and snow, round and round in the darkness between the warehouses and the quayside that were all shut up for the night. Until the wind got fed up and dumped its dance partner beside the wall. And there the dry, windswept snow was settling around the shoes of the man I had just shot in the chest and neck.” (p.1)
And that is about as poetic as it gets in this novel. Most of the time, Nesbø writes like I imagine a financial analyst would think – coolly, incisively and clinically observant. He writes best when he goes straight for the jugular. He is not as good at writing pretty lines, at spinning out metaphors and making exciting or meaningful comparisons. When he does, infrequently, like when he describes the boss’s wife, it sounds overused and formulaic: the soft blonde hair, the white, smooth skin, the long legs, the glowing eyes and soft lips, comparisons to a cat, etc. What is this – a Barbie doll or a woman? But it turns out that Nesbø is less green than he is cabbage-looking: when the reader considers the plot afterwards, you realize that the woman had rather silly mannerisms because she was faking it. And that the protagonist’s love interest lay elsewhere.
Also, when Nesbø inserts a “literary” element into the novel, the theme of Johansen’s preoccupation with Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, and self-determination or escaping one’s fate, or “writing your own story”, the wheels come off.
For a little boy, Olav, to read Les Misérables – even the “concise edition” (referred to on p.123) – in English no less (!), when he is dyslexic, and then rewrite the plot in his head, and rethink it for the rest of his adult life, seems implausible to me. Besides, from what I could find out, there is no concise edition of this 1,200 page dated whopper full of romance and misery, with “the original illustration[s] by Émile-Antoine Bayard”. (There are children’s versions, abridged and reduced to a few hundred pages – perhaps that’s what he meant.) One way or another, introducing this internal novel as a major motivating force of the protagonist just seems pretentious and unnecessary.
The oddity of Olav and Les Misérables is not a major flaw. One can ignore those sections – I did after a while. The three/four hours that it took me to gallop through Blood on Snow were really enjoyable and it was easy to concentrate on the plot. And I ended up rooting for Johansen. I wouldn’t call the novel “terrifying” or “electrifying” like other reviewers have done, but it did keep me engaged. The ending is smart, unexpected and inventive and I had to read it twice to appreciate it. It isn’t quite Scandinavian Noir, since the hero is a criminal, not a cop, but it is set in a cold climate, in a Scandinavian country, and Nesbø does depict the tension between the superficially peaceful and well-off Norwegian society and its dark underbelly of drug smugglers, killers, pimps and lonely check-out counter girls.
How he got started
On his website, in his autobiography, Nesbø writes about how he got started – this whole thing was about airports and expediency, and from the start his writing was successful. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
“The reason I brought my laptop was that a woman from a publishing company had proposed I write a book describing life on the road with the band. That engendered a whole new way of thinking and I realized I was ready to take the leap and write a novel. It was just a question of getting started. But it had to be a story about what Aksel Sandemose [1899 – 1965, Danish-Norwegian writer] claimed were the only two things worth writing about: murder and love.
It takes about thirty hours to fly from Oslo to Sydney. And in those thirty hours I came up with the plot for a story I started writing as soon as I got to the hotel. It was the middle of the night, I had jetlag and I wrote about a guy named Harry who landed at the same Sydney airport, was staying in the same hotel and had jetlag…When I returned from Australia I had almost finished the book. As soon as I set my suitcase down in my living room, I picked up writing again. I just wrote and wrote and was irritated by disturbances like hunger and the need for sleep. These were the best weeks of my life.” – Jo Nesbø online
About the author
Jo Nesbø (Nesbo in English) is a Norwegian celebrity with international fame. Far be it for me to regurgitate his life story or publications. His latest “Harry Hole” thriller, The Thirst, is out now. “There’s a new killer on the streets and he’s out for blood… A woman is found murdered after an internet date. The marks left on her body show the police that they will be dealing with a particularly vicious case. Harry Hole makes a return in Jo Nesbo’s thrilling new novel.” You can read an extract on his website.