Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Redbreast: Jo Nesbo

A former colleague of mine is promoting the rather splendid idea that since the country's on its knees, our best shot is to rejoin our colonial overlords and let them look after us. However, unlike various craven stooges of MI6 such as you might see suggesting this in some of our national newspapers, the colleague has thought laterally about overlords. We live in a much conquered island, after all, and it turns out that we have at least one incredibly wealthy former owner which might take us on. The Norwegians have been pulling oil out of the North Sea for decades now, and since they make all their own electricity with hydro, they've been able to export most of it. Now the Norwegian state pension funds own about 2% of all European equity. And since they occupied most of our eastern seaboard long before the idea ever occurred to the ancient foe, I reckon they've got first claim. All we have to do is think of a way to invite them back.

While we're mulling that over, we need to think about what we'll do when this harmonises us with Norwegian crime rates. As I've mentioned before, Scandiwegia seems to be afflicted with heroic amounts of fictional criminal activity. All those long nights and the lack of cheap booze, I suspect. Jo Nesbo's got longstanding form here, and has been banging on the head of his hapless detective protagonist since some time in the 90s. The books started popping up in translation in Ireland about five or six years ago, and for reasons which I can't quite fathom have recently been savagely discounted, so I bought a bunch of them on the basis that if I didn't like them I could find someone else who did. Redbreast is the first of his books to have been translated into English, and we find Harry Hole in media res, having done interesting things in Bangkok and Sydney. Well, the other characters in the book think they were interesting, but I have my doubts. If they were that interesting, you'd think someone would have bothered to translate them into English.

Anyhow, Harry is one of those guys who only exist in fiction, really. He's a loose cannon, damn it. He's his own man. He's a drunk, but yet, he's incredibly effective as a detective. I don't have anything like the broad spread of acquaintance I ought to have, but in my limited experience of alcoholics, it's usually a bad idea to expect them to have much in the line of people skills. Addicts see everything through the addiction. Other people matter in the way they connect to the addiction, not for their own sake. That's not really a frame of mind that makes people horribly effective at anything other than ruining everything for everyone.

In fairness to Nesbo, Hole is actually pretty much as bad at most things as an alcoholic ought to be. He can't shoot straight, which I rather liked. Possibly just as well that he can't, since he exists in Nesbo's universe and Nesbo either doesn't know anything about guns or has made an executive decision that other people shouldn't learn anything about them from reading his books. The master plot, such as it is, rotates around a Marklin rifle which fires 16mm Singapore bullets. Marklin make train sets. There's no such thing as a Singapore bullet. There is also no such as a 16mm rifle, and hasn't been since the American Civil War, which is the last time anyone bothered with a bullet above .57 calibre in anything other than dedicated anti-tank rifles. I fuss about this not because I am a pedant, but because Nesbo makes such a damn big deal about the gun being a uniquely marvelous assassination tool.

The Redbreast is an odd duck of a detective novel, because it takes so long to get to its point. The engine of motivation for its criminals is the Norwegian experience of the Second World War, which is actually an interesting thing to get a spare perspective on, but the flashbacks into the 1940s are confusing in their setup and execution (I thought it was just me getting mixed up with all the funny names, but it turns out that there's some switchbacking going on in the viewpoints specifically to confuse and mislead the reader as to who's still in play). In modern times, one of the things I really liked was that the investigations get deadlocked and sidelined and take a long time; the action of the book unfolds episodically over six months. It's a shocking violation of the Aristotelian unities, but life doesn't respect the unities very well either.

But lands sakes, it's all very long all the same. 618 pages is a mad length for a detective novel. And I've got four more up in the third floor operations room just the same size. I wonder am I going to stick it all the way through. Hole's plainly going somewhere, but I don't know if I've got the patience to follow him.

5 comments:

SteveM said...

Twice in Redbreast reference is made to an extra magazine and a clip for Harry's Smith and Wesson revolver. Maybe in Norwegian he used a word for speedloader that was mistranslated, or, maybe Nesbo doesn't know anything about firearms. However the reviewer is incorrect in stating that there is no such thing as a 16mm rifle, and hasn't been since the Civil War. In fact there is the .600 Nitro Express (15.75 mm) developed in 1899 and used in double barrel elephant guns. I've never heard of a Märklin rifle, and the one image I could find on the internet purporting to be one is actually a Holland-Woodward falling block rifle. But there are a lot of rifles I never heard of that probably will never be found in an internet search, so I'm not ready to claim that there is no such thing. Oh, by the way, I really enjoyed Redbreast and the opportunity it gave me to do some research and learn about Norwegian volunteers in the German army.

Max said...

The permanent hazard of being pedantic about other people's writing is that you're wide open to people being pedantic about you, so I take being skewered in my stride. Still, rats. I actually knew about .600 Nitro Express, and just forgot. Writers are usually pants about guns, or pants at writing; the only exception that I can think of off the top of my head is Gavin Lyall. On balance, I'd rather have good writing than accurate gun talk....

Charlie Bjørgen said...

I am Norwegian, and have read the book. In the Norwegian version the actual word used is 'hurtiglader', which directly translates to speedloader. So the translators use of the word clip makes no sense to me

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