The Redbreast – Jo Nesbø

I received The Redbreast as a ‘gift’ from iTunes one Christmas for my iPod (they had a 12 days of Christmas freebie thing, totally worth it, I got 3 Foo Fighters songs, a book and sonic racing).

I actually really dislike reading things on screens so I avoided reading The Redbreast for five months until I needed something to do on the train.

Though I maintain a dislike of e-books and reading lengthy novels via a small screen, I enjoyed Jo Nesbø’s third offering from his Harry Hole series. Despite it being the third novel I didn’t find I needed to have read the first two to understand who Harry was as the story itself is so remote from the goings on previously that all you need to understand is something big happened in his past which has lead to occasional alcoholism.

So The Redbreast is a mix of present day (1999-2000) and the latter years of the Second World War. It follows Harry Hole, a police detective in Norway who, after an unfortunate incident at the start of the book, is promoted to Inspector to keep him hidden away from public police work.

Bored in his new post and frustrated by the release of a criminal he had caught on a technicality, Harry latches onto a neo-Nazi related case that comes across his desk.

Meanwhile an unnamed old man has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which sets in motion a series of events from his frustration of the changes in Norway since 1945.

Interspersed with the present day goings on of this mysterious (and violent) old man and Harry Hole’s investigation are moments from 1944 in the trenches of the Norwegian men who followed Hitler into war. I have to admit my ignorance of Norway’s role in the Second World War as I didn’t know they had joined the Nazis, or that the royal family and members of the government had fled to the UK for safety.

You know that the people in these snippets of life during WW2 must be connected to the present day but it is highly clever what that connection turns out to be.


The narrative is clear and Nesbø’s writing style is very easy to follow, even in translation. The plot is quite descriptive but gives nothing away until the appropriate moment.

I was constantly guessing what the connection could be, but I wasn’t gripped by the book until one particularly harrowing moment about halfway through, which is never fully satisfied and leads on to Harry Hole’s next book. I won’t spoil what happens but it is akin to that moment in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when Lisbeth is brutally raped and you become hooked on wanting to know how the bastard is going to get his comeuppance.

I found the history of Norway in WW2 fascinating. Though told through snippets each one painted a clear image of life in the trenches and hospitals in Hitler’s Europe. Of course as these are narrative they are most likely more liberal with the truth, however even just finding out Norway was the source of troops for the Fuhrer was enough to pique my historical interest in the novel.

Make no mistake there is a lot of violence in this novel. It is not gratuitous and is easily read by a wuss such as myself but if you are so squeamish you cannot read about paper-cuts you might not like this novel. A great deal of the violence occurs off-camera so to speak, you do not witness the violent act, apart from the harrowing episode already mentioned. With that you feel quite removed from the action, as Harry is, and play detective alongside.

I would highly recommend this novel to people unsure they are fans of detective fiction as, until I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I was positive I only enjoyed novels with wizards in them.

There is a difference between British or American detective novels and the Scandinavian offerings which I believe to be the style. Both Larsson and Nesbø have an almost clinical take on the truly harrowing parts of their novels, but then inject such warmth and humanity into other areas that you become truly on the side of the hero. What is also important, and I think true of all detective novels, is that the hero is fundamentally flawed.

Harry Hole is an alcoholic, unwilling to be in the spotlight, but a brilliant detective. As a reader you are willing for him to buck up his ideas, be kinder to those around him, and at one point to PICK UP THE PHONE. Ahem. You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean about that.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, I look forward to the next (Nemesis), and I also look forward to the day when I can read Nesbø’s childrens books to either my kids or the nieces and nephews I shall hopefully have one day.

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