Review: Phantom by Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole 09)

Book info:

Form: Kindle format
Genre: thriller, crime mystery
Target audience: adults
My name’s Harry and I come from Hong Kong. Where is she?”

The man arched an eyebrow. “The Harry?”

“Since it has been one of Norway’s least trendy names for the last fifty years, we can probably assume it is.”


After three years of more or less quiet and healthy life Harry Hole returns to Oslo from his exile in Hong-Kong. Of course  he starts having a lot of trouble immediately. Is it bad? Not necessarily – he loves it all: issues, being miserable, chasing after criminals, fighting his own demons and flesh-and-blood opponents as well, deduction and crime-solving, more issues, being more miserable, drinking Jim Beam… 

Anyway his main problem this time revolves around the premature and rather violent death of a young drug dealer and addict called Gusto Hanssen. He was shot – a crime like many others, the local cops don’t care a fig about such victims. The problem is that Gusto was a partner in crime and a close friend of Oleg, the son of Harry’s most serious love interest, Rakel. Oleg, now aged 18 and a drug fiend himself, is remanded in custody, accused of murdering his associate; the outlook for him is rather bleak as DNA tests show clearly he was present at the crime scene. That’s why Harry, although no longer a young, energetic police officer, wants to investigate that murder, apparently already solved, so much. He thinks he owes Oleg for not being there for him all those years. After all Harry has always been a kind of father-figure to the boy and he doesn’t feel like deserting him and his mother in dire straits. Soon Harry finds the whole case a real challenge – he is overwhelmed with the number of possible suspects; he needs more evidence and evidence is scarce. Is somebody actively hindering his investigation?

Before he faces the truth Harry will have to unravel the current drug-scene to find out who is the man with the nick of ‘Phantom’ both Gusto and Oleg were working for. He’ll find out there is a new synthetic drug around, called “violin”, similar to heroin but far more potent, playing hellish havoc with Oslo’s junkie population. His investigation will reveal police and local-government corruption and (nothing new, really) it will become increasingly dangerous to all interested parties. Will Hole outsmart his opponents and survive once again?

What I liked:

First let me tell you that I have read all Harry Hole novels available so far (here you can find all Nesbo’s books in order if you are curious) and it seems to me ‘Phantom’ is one of the best, if not the best, of all. It is a great mix – an interesting detective story with acute social commentary on the downside of drug abuse and the clash between new wealth and old values. Even if you don’t live in Norway (I don’t) you can relate. Mind you the author never gets sentimental which is great.

Nesbo adopts an interesting handful of P.O.V.s, presenting not only Gusto’s dying thoughts along with Harry’s real-time hectic investigation but also some insight into the thoughts of a female rat (sic!). In fact the rat opens the whole novel and then resurfaces at the beginning of each of the novel’s five sections. I am not sure a rat can think as coherently and clearly as it was written here but it was a nice, original idea anyway, adding to already a very dynamic narrative. And it was fun.

I’m usually not a person who can pick spot-on the identity of a murderer in a decent whodunit (I think I am too stupid or too lazy or both) so small wonder I missed nearly every clue and certainly did not see the ending coming (one big twist, believe me!). Still it was one heck of a ride, rollercoaster as usual, nothing less, which I enjoyed immensely. Be warned: this book is a compulsive page-turner, reading from time to time like Jason Bourne’s adventures.

However the biggest asset of this series is, in my humble opinion, the psychological veracity and dynamics of both baddies and protagonists. All of them are flawed, all of them have good and bad days, ups and downs, almost like in real life. The baddies tend to be smart, charming and handsome, you can’t help pitying some of them and our lonely ex-detective has to perform top notch to outsmart them in time. Harry also changes as he is plagued by bad memories and different ‘ghosts’ because, let’s face it, his ‘job’ is not easy and hardly ever done. It’s only too normal that he breaks down regularly (who wouldn’t), drinking or taking drugs. It is also a reason why it is great to start reading about him from the very beginning although Phantom, like other parts featuring Hole, can be easily a stand-alone book. Still it is so very nice to find some of the plot themes from the previous books coming together.

What I didn’t like:

I admit the book was a tiny little bit overwritten. I was especially surprised that dying took poor Gusto so long. He was an addict on forced withdrawal, mortally wounded because shot more than once from a very close distance, lying in a horrible junkie den, bleeding heavily…and he actually managed to tell his part of the story to the very end in a lucid way. This was probably the weakest part of this book although I did see the point of Gusto’s narrative. Oh well, it is just a fictional story, isn’t it? Still a brave, motivated editor, not afraid of cutting out this or that, could have made this a tighter, more edgy novel.

My second complaint concerns Harry himself. Sometimes he acts as if he was immortal and he knew it (and his enemies not, ha ha, let surprise the b******ds one more time!). Unlike ordinary, mortal folk he doesn’t care much about his own health and safety: he goes to meetings with a possibly deadly outcome almost unprepared, he hardly ever eats or sleeps. After a while it starts being a bit silly. In ‘Phantom’ our brave ex-detective sews up his own partially cut throat and chin using a simple, non-sterilized needle and a black thread (don’t try that at home) and, instead of visiting a friendly doctor or at least a voluptuous nurse soon afterwards to have it done properly, he goes out to dig out a corpse from a grave. Hey mister, have you ever heard of sepsis? Oh, sorry, you are immortal, I forgot…Then he turns off half of the city’s power supply instantly and mind you, he does it with just one single phone call. A regular Superman, don’t you think? I almost crooned ‘my hero!’ I wish I could solve such mundane (and far less complicated) problems as a mistake in an invoice or an outstanding payment that way – one phone call and it is done. No such luck so far.

Finally I am not a big fan of the cover art – it seems too bland and generic. Not hearing anything about the book itself I would hardly glance at it and move on.

Final verdict:

Despite  minor shortcomings I liked this novel very much. Still I must warn you the author left deliberately some significant loose ends (it is, in fact, a steep, sharp cliffie, sharper than rat’s teeth, be warned). It is really hard to predict where Harry’s going from here but if there is a new book available next year, I am going to preorder it for sure. Just for the heck of it let me predict how the series will end. In other words…

How to kill Harry Hole?

It is really simple. No need of guns, sophisticated torture devices, madmen or poison. In fact the more obstacles you throw his way, the stronger Harry is. However, try keeping him satisfied and happy in a fluffy-warm, fully functional family straight from a soap opera for three months and he will wilt by the excess of happiness like a plant exposed too long to direct sunlight. He might kick the bucked even sooner, let’s say after a mere month, if his beloved Rakel and Oleg join him there – it’s enough Oleg whispers ‘dad’ every day and Rakel hugs him tightly. 😉

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