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by Jo Nesbų and Don Bartlett, trans.
Random House Canada, October 2012
384 pages
$24.95 CAD
ISBN: 0307361012

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Unilingual Scandinavian crime fiction enthusiasts, especially those who follow series, have a particular reason to rue their lack of a second language. Translations of series are often issued in what appears to be random order, blurring the development of recurring characters and sometimes confusing the reader due to the absence of back story. The English-language publishing history of the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbų is a case in point. Though the last few in the series have been issued pretty much in their original order, the first few have been brought out more or less arbitrarily. Thus "The Oslo Trilogy" (REDBREAST, NEMESIS, DEVIL'S STAR) came out with the last first, then the first, followed by NEMESIS, the centerpiece. The first two episodes in the appalling life of Harry Hole remained untranslated. But now, at long length, the first, at least, now appears in English - THE BAT, splendidly translated by Nesbų's usual translator, Don Bartlett.

Readers who have come to confront the newest Harry Hole with a mixture of anticipation and dread will find THE BAT something of a relief. First, it is relatively short compared to the later novels - well under 400 pages and set in very readable type. Second, Harry remains sober most of the way and refrains from either witnessing or inflicting the gruesome violence that makes more recent entries in the series difficult going for many readers. (A personal confession - I've not been able to get past chapter three in any of them since THE SNOWMAN.) Indeed, THE BAT appears light-hearted and genial, at least in comparison with how the series develops.

Perhaps this is down to the change in scene. For Harry did not make his fictional debut in his native land, so to speak, but in sunny Australia. I have difficulty thinking of another durable series hero who started out in life so far from home. Harry has been sent to observe the investigation into the death of a young Norwegian woman in Australia. Not surprisingly, he's been picked for the duty as a kind of exercise in rehabilitation in the hope that he can be restored to full functioning on the Oslo force following a drunken disaster. He is, for the moment at least, firmly on the wagon.

He is teamed up with a middle-aged Aboriginal detective, Andrew Kensington, a complicated and interesting man who introduces Harry to Australian society from the point of view of someone who is himself an outsider to the traditional power structure. In short order, they discover a string of murders and are on the trail of a serial killer who prefers blondes with Harry acting more as lead detective than as a foreign observer.

In time, the narrative develops in the direction of the complex plotting and occasional over-the-top violence that will characterize later books in the series. But much of THE BAT looks backward, to Harry's past, to the incident that has transformed his life and sent him off to Australia, the single event most responsible for the man he has become.

The many fans of this series will need no urging to race off and buy THE BAT at their earliest opportunity. Those who have yet to make their acquaintance with Harry or those who have read a later novel and turned away are advised not to miss this one. Anyway, if THE BAT does not provide a lesson in how to pronounce Harry's last name, at least we find out how not to. Let us hope that Don Bartlett is busily at work on volume two - THE COCKROACH - before we learn how the cliffhanger at the end of PHANTOM is to be resolved.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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