Book review: Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo - love, murder and mayhem in Norway

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm

Blood on Snow
by Jo Nesbo
Harvill Secker

American actor Leonardo DiCaprio was apparently so taken with Jo Nesbo's latest story set in Norway, Blood on Snow, that Warner Bros snapped up the film rights for him. It's not difficult to see why.

This punchy, cut-to-the-chase novella introduces the sympathetic anti-hero Olav, a hitman with a heart, just as he is adding more blood to snow, having shot his latest victim in the chest and throat.

"The man standing in front of me would soon be dead … It was nothing personal. I told him as much before he collapsed, leaving a smear of blood down the wall."

For all Olav's ruthless efficiency in the service of his brutal gangster boss, Daniel Hoffman, he has a conscience, too. He draws the line at any involvement in prostitution and drug taking, and his sympathetic nature even leads him to clear a junkie's substantial debts himself rather than see the man's deaf-mute girlfriend prostitute herself to pay them off. "I didn't really have much use for the money I was earning from Hoffman. So what if I dealt a decent card to a girl who'd been given such a lousy hand?"

Olav also keeps a paternal watch over her to make sure she is safe. "She worked in a small supermarket, and I looked in every now and then to make sure things were OK, and that her junkie boyfriend hadn't popped up to ruin things for her again."

Olav's own troubles begin just as he is looking to make a change to his lonely existence. His boss orders him to carry out his next "hit" on Hoffman's cheating wife, Corina, and make it look as if it took place during a break-in.

He hesitates, saying he is thinking of taking a break from contract killing, so Hoffman offers Olav five times his usual fee. The assassin books a hotel room overlooking Hoffman's home so he can keep watch on the woman and learn her regular movements - then kill her as simply as possible.

Things become unexpectedly complicated when he starts to fall in love with the beautiful woman. He also worries whether Hoffman will really let him walk away. Then Olav pulls the trigger, and yet more blood falls on snow.

Nesbo, a former professional footballer in Norway before an injury cut short his career, honed his writing skills - and made his name internationally - with his series of 10 thrillers featuring maverick detective Harry Hole.

His best book about the honest if insubordinate, deeply troubled hero, The Snowman, is to be made into a movie by Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In. Nesbo's most recent novel is another bestseller, The Son, about an escaped prisoner out for revenge.

Blood on Snow features his usual brisk, no-nonsense writing style, crisply translated from the Norwegian by Neil Smith, which keeps the absorbing story pulsing onwards as Olav is hunted - both by former associates and rival gangs.

Nesbo throws in plenty of clever twists and surprises to leave the reader wondering how the inventive Olav, with the odds firmly stacked against him, can survive to kill another day.

While the action is satisfyingly bloody and relentless, Nesbo also weaves a haunting melancholy thread to his narrative that provides a bittersweet aftertaste.

The biggest complaint with the book, which leaves the reader wanting more, is that it is too short. A sequel, Midnight Sun - a reference to the natural phenomenon in parts of Norway where the summer sun never disappears - is already written.

English-language readers will just have to wait until November.