Nesbo's new revenge thriller plugs the gap left by Harry Hole

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:55pm

The Son
by Jo Nesbo
Harvill Secker
5 stars

Guy Haydon

The brutally battered looks of self-destructive detective Harry Hole - complete with a bullet-wound scar to his head - show that his creator, Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo, could have easily killed him off many times in the course of the 10 violent, bestselling thrillers in which he has appeared. But after being translated into 40 languages and sales of more than 20 million books around the world, he has always resisted.

Nesbo took a brief hiatus from the Hole books in 2008, to publish a well-received standalone chase thriller Headhunters, which became a successful 2011 Norwegian film. Now he is taking a longer break and has no plans for further Hole books. Instead, here's the terrific, blood-soaked, multi-stranded revenge thriller The Son, which more than fills the hole left by Hole.

Sonny Lofthus, a promising schoolboy wrestler before becoming addicted to drugs, has been in jail in Oslo for more than a decade since admitting to the murders of two people when he was 18. The model prisoner spends his days - in between regular fixes of heroin - as a confidant to inmates, listening to their confessions and absolving them of their sins.

He is about to admit to a third murder, in return for a fresh supply of drugs, when a prisoner asks him for forgiveness - only for the confession to involve details about Lofthus' disgraced father.

Instantly enraged, he hatches a plan to escape and wreak revenge on Oslo's drug dealers and lowlifes he believes have wronged him. Top of his hit-list is the city's sadistic organised-crime kingpin.

Meanwhile, grizzled police chief inspector Simon Kefas and his new homicide colleague, Kari Adel, have been sent to a park, and the scene of what, at least initially, appears to be the suicide of a prison chaplain - but something does not seem right.

Later, they attend the scene of a particularly shocking murder: a woman has been found in bed with the top of her head sawn off.

This exhilarating tale of retribution grips from the opening lines and, in an interesting change of perspective, effortlessly gets the readers rooting, not only for Kefas, but also for Lofthus. Soon we are willing the relentless avenging angel to succeed - despite the impossible odds as the police and the city's criminals try to stop him.

Nesbo shows his total mastery of the thriller genre, confidently weaving his unrelenting, roller-coaster storyline with heart-stopping action amid scenes of genuine pathos and passion.

Time and again, Nesbo leaves his readers reeling - forcing them to race ahead to find out what happens after repeated cliffhangers.

Fans of the Hole novels will be reassured by the high number of dead bodies Lofthus and other baddies leave behind. Yet Lofthus is no demented killer, hell-bent on a mindless rampage; he is in total control, determined to follow his righteous plan to the end - regardless of the cost to himself - as he hands out justice in his often eerily calm, matter-of-fact manner: "She didn't doubt her eyes for one moment, just gasped for air and automatically retreated one step to the open door behind her. It was a handgun … There was a bang and she felt as if someone had punched her, shoved her hard in the chest and continued to move, stumbling back through the door, numb with no control of her limbs.

He came over and put his hand on her shoulder. 'Does it hurt?' She managed to shake her head. She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.

He moved his hand and she felt the rubber glove on her neck.

'Your heart will stop beating shortly,' he said."

All the while, the world-weary Kefas remains resolute in pursuit of justice; he has a troubled past and present - an ailing wife - plus a reason for catching the man on the murderous crusade.

There is not one false step in Nesbo's novel. His complex, fully realised characters all resonate, vividly coming to life (and often dying) on the page thanks to telling, often haunting descriptions, crisp, credible dialogue, and bold, inspired pacing.

He is unafraid to introduce moments of sudden stillness and real emotional power - as if to let readers catch their breath - before driving Lofthus on to the powerful and satisfying yet also genuinely moving denouement.

Later this year Nesbo plans to publish Blood on Snow, the first of three thrillers about a hitman who falls in love with his boss' wife, written under the pseudonym Tom Johansen; they reportedly enthralled Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio enough to acquire the film rights.

That DiCaprio and global readers are gripped by Nesbo's books is no surprise: few writers today offer such consistent thrills.

Kefas pinpoints this appeal as he searches Lofthus' home:

"'Unusual for an uninhabited house to have power. Like someone has recently…'

'… No,' Kari said. 'I've checked it. Ever since Lofthus went to prison the utility bills have been paid from a Cayman Islands account that's impossible to trace back to an individual. The amounts aren't huge, but it's …'

'… mysterious,' Simon said. 'That's all good; we detectives just love a good mystery, don't we.'"