The Thirst, by Jo Nesbo. Translated from the Norwegian by Neil Smith. (Hardcover publisher: Knopf; 1st ed. May 9, 2017, 480 pages. Hardcover edition by Penguin Random House Canada, April 25, 2017. To be published in paperback by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, Jan. 30, 2018, 544 pages.

The film adaptation of The Snowman by Jo Nesbø (Nesbo outside Norway) came out last year October. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, and starring the utterly delectably inscrutable Michael Fassbender, it had a budget of $35 million and has had box office returns of a respectable $43.1 million after three months. It is the film of the seventh novel by Nesbo that features his flawed but genius detective, “Harry Hole”. What a name – Harry Hole. It alliterates, but it is such a plodder of a name that it belies the mental sharpness that defines the character. And now he has released The Thirst, the eleventh Harry Hole novel, which is an awful lot about blood. Or a lot about awful blood.

The other Harry Hole novels are:

  1. Flaggermusmannen (1997), translated as The Bat (2012), set in Sydney, Australia
  2. Kakerlakkene (1998), translated as Cockroaches (2013), set in Thailand
  3. Rødstrupe (2000), translated as The Redbreast (2006), set in Norway
  4. Sorgenfri (2002), translated as Nemesis (2008), “
  5. Marekors (2003), translated as The Devil’s Star (2005), “
  6. Frelseren (2005), translated as The Redeemer (2009), “
  7. Snømannen (2007), translated as The Snowman (2010), “
  8. Panserhjerte (2009), translated as The Leopard (2011), “
  9. Gjenferd (2011), translated as Phantom (2012), “
  10. Politi (2013), translated as Police (2013), “

Lots of blood

Poster of The Snowman film of 2017.

In his latest novel, Tørst (2017), translated very ably and slickly by Neil Smith as The Thirst, Harry makes it out alive by mere seconds of life, covered in blood, only some of it being his own. And blood is what it’s all about: how much of it a body has; how much blood can cover a space of X size; how long it takes to congeal; what can you get out of the DNA – and after how long; what blood contains and how much can be ingested; how blood moves and spreads; how it tastes; how it can be…extracted. Oh, the ways it can be extracted…little metal straws, transfusions, metal jaws! And how it can be drunk…with a bit of lemon juice like a Bloody Mary with gin, a.k.a Spicy Red Snapper. Drunk, after the metal jaws have snapped shut.

Very terrifying

I admit I was plain terrified while reading this. It is so un-put-downable, all 462 pages of it, that I spent an entire morning cowering in bed getting through the final chapters, after a night thrashing about with nightmares about it. That I had simultaneously watched the hit Canadian detective series Cardinal (which has similar characters and plot) while reading the novel, did not help things.  The other theme of the novel, associated with all things sanguinary, is vampirism, which is not the existence of vampires, but a mental disorder. Also called clinical vampirism, Renfield’s or Renfield syndrome, this collection of blood-sucking symptoms and behaviours has never gained official recognition by the psychiatric profession and is not found in any edition of the International Classification of Diseases or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). And therein lies the rub – for at least one of the possible suspects in the novel, this fact is really important. But not to disclose too much of the plot, I’ll stop here.

Focused, succinct and definitive in tone

Again, Nesbo’s style is succinct and designed to evoke the maximum amount of dramatic tension. As always, he keeps descriptions to the minimum but uses them to evoke a specific tone at key moments.

“He saw the blue sign, read the name, and braked. Pulled in to the side of the road and switched the engine off. Looked around. Forest and road. It reminded him of those anonymous, monotonous stretches of road in Finland, where you get the feeling that you’re driving through a desert of trees. Where the trees stand like a silent wall on either side of the road and a body is as easy to hide as it would be to sink it in the sea. He waited until a car had passed. Checked the mirror. He couldn’t see any lights now, either in front or behind.” (p.291)

This is not Harry talking. So the speaker does really mean the bit about getting rid of a body. Note how the Nesbo first sets the scene and the atmosphere, then drops the bomb:

“So he got out onto the road, walked around the car and opened the boot. She was so pale. Even her freckles were paler. And her frightened eyes looked big and black above the muzzle.”

Ah-hah. There’s the next corpse.

Switching perspectives creates tension

Nesbo moves between the viewpoints of many characters, police, victims and suspects, switching back to the moment of action just when the reader is positively drooling to find out what’s going to happen. It is really very clever, the way he leads you up multiple garden paths at the same time, just like a cinematographer, focusing your attention on a different person or scene by dwelling on them and keeping the suspense levels high.

Illustration of the monkey trap experiment in an article “How to Avoid a Monkey Trap, by Oliver Burkeman, in The Guardian UK (rtrvd. 2018-01-02)

I was convinced I knew who the real killer was, a doctor and haematology specialist, “John D. Steffens”, and actually read on looking for clues to confirm it. Silly me, I was totally being strung along by the devious author. Talk about false leads and clues! Right until the last few pages, I was firmly convinced that I knew who the target of the complicated “[South Indian] Monkey Trap experiment” was – John D. Steffens. Or perhaps the new, much-too-smiley detective “Anders Wyller”.

The Monkey Trap

This is an actual experiment, famously mentioned in Robert Pirsig’s 1974 novel, Zen and the The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Basically, it demonstrated with monkeys and coconuts what psychologists call the Einstellung (German for attitude) effect, which is the way preconceptions can blind us to better ways of doing things. The problem is how to escape from old ideas and beliefs and adopt new, better ones. (This is discussed in a paper by Merim Bilalić and Peter McLeod of Oxford University, and Fernand Gobet of Brunel University, called Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones: The Mechanism of the Pernicious Einstellung (set) Effect).

The ideas derived from the monkey trap experiment are intrinsic to the development of the character of Harry and the motivations of other characters around him. In The Thirst, Harry comes back to his old job of homicide detective, while trying to safeguard his new, happy life with his wife, “Rakel”. Around him the politics, corruption and betrayals of the police force wash like ripples in a pool, but Harry is mainly concerned with saving Rakel’s life when she gets a mysterious blood disease. And to a certain extent, saving his own, because Harry realizes in the end that in him, like inside the killers who he catches, there is a thirst for…something. Fame? Oblivion? Something more ominous? Is he in his own kind of monkey trap?

The reveal as a disputation

All gets satisfactorily revealed, but right up to the last paragraph events occur that open the path to the next Harry Hole novel, because it’s a fact that protagonists are only as effective as their antagonists. Every detective novel needs a really evil, memorable criminal who is hard to get rid of. In this novel, the “reveal” is specifically set up as a “disputation” during which Harry exposes the antagonist, who wants to pass on his legacy of evil.

I have heard many stories told in the community of mining engineers where I had my first job, about the importance and drama of the “disputation”, or “doctoral defence ceremony” required by their universities, which is the event at which master and doctoral students have to publicly defend their theses and research. (Example: Technical University Delft Disputation Procedures 2018) It’s part oral exam, part exhibition and part theatre – but it is a requirement for obtaining the degree. In this novel, the disputation becomes a police interrogation and it’s fiendishly clever.

Where to now, Harry?

Enough said. The Thirst is excellent, and it offers the prospect of another Harry Hole mystery. Nesbo challenges his readers, you have to pay attention and sometimes page back to check a tiny, but significant detail. Did that guy stutter? Is that address the same as Harry’s address? Why is this man going on about Lakota Indians drinking the blood of their prisoners? (p.303) It is a headful to cope with. So much blood – but what a thrilling ride!


Read my review of Blood on Snow, by Jo Nesbo, an “Olav Johansen” novel published in 2015 as Blod på snø.