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by Jo Nesbo
Harvill Secker, September 2006
528 pages
ISBN: 184343217X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It has become such a common device in modern literature to have the narratives set in (at least) two time frames, that when this doesn't happen, the reader is likely to feel cheated. Jo Nesbo doesn't deprive readers of a time fix in THE REDBREAST. The novel is set in the modern day as well as the war years, from 1942 onwards.

In the modern day, Detective Harry Hole and his partner Ellen Gjelten are on security duty for the US President's visit to Norway. Because of inadequate communication between security details representing the hosts and the visitors, Harry perpetrates a blunder that could well escalate into an international incident if handled badly. As a consequence, in order to cover up what happened, Harry is promoted to Inspector and is whisked from the immediate view of the media.

Hole and Gjelten are greatly upset when the case they have built against a Neo-Nazi, Sverre Olsen comes apart in court on a technicality. Thus, the dangerous, though dim, Olsen is released into the general community once more, free to take up profitable commissions such as assassinations.

In 1942, conditions for Norwegian soldiers on the Eastern Front are about as appalling as any produced by wartime can be. Charismatic young Daniel Gudeson kills a Russian soldier but, on New Year's Eve, is shot and killed by the Russians. There is disquiet amongst the remaining men, two of whom decide to defect to the Russian side. Perhaps the enemy feeds their men more and better food than that given to the Norwegians on the other side. The group of soldiers finds its ranks reduced by the end of the war but just who are the survivors?

Back in the present day, Harry, not knowing of his cover-up promotion, has relapsed into the alcoholism that had formerly owned him. The news of his new rank, aided by Ellen's enthusiasm, sees Harry's return to both work and sobriety.

An old man accosts Sverre Olsen in a cafe and asks him to facilitate the purchase of a Marklin gun, a very high-powered object. Olsen consults his mysterious mentor, the Prince, who promises to obtain the weapon.

It seems inevitable that novels set in the frigid north will have a heavy and pessimistic air and THE REDBREAST is no exception to the rule. Despite this, the book is a very attractive work. The characterisations are well done indeed, with Harry maintaining the reader's sympathy at all times.

Harry and Ellen are not the only two characters to have beautifully coloured portraits. Other people do not fare as well at the pointy end of the author's nib. The Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Bernt Brandhaug, is the subject of a sparkling, diabolically painted miniature. An amazingly confident womaniser, Brandhaug uses his position to entice or coerce women into his hotel bed, despite the fact that he is married. One woman, at least, fights back by drinking enough alcohol to numb her feelings before obeying his orders to surrender her chastity to him. The subsequent scene is delicately drawn and may well delight any woman who has been the subject of similar coercion.

Nesbo is an excellent author. He has a real talent for creating people with the ability to elicit the reader's sympathies. His construction of crimes and the mysteries in which they are shrouded as well as their unravelling is beautifully written and he has the happy knack of leaving the reader wanting to learn more about his protagonists.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, September 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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