The Leopard marks the eighth crime novel featuring the chain-smoking alcoholic Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department, an agency that is rife with political intrigue, corruption and ineptitude. However, since Hole is immune to politics, doesn’t take bribes and has a reputation for always solving murder cases, he is the department’s calendar boy ... a fact that makes him despised by many of his fellow officers.
Somewhere between the last chapter of The Snowman, and the opening pages of The Leopard, Harry has managed to acquire yet another offensive (but secret) addiction: opium. In fact, his addiction is the direct result of the mental and physical traumas he suffered (he lost a finger and ended up with a broken jaw that left him badly disfigured) in tracking down Norway’s most notorious serial killer, the Snowman.
Consequently, The Leopard is a sequel to Nesbø’s previous crime novel, The Snowman. In fact, the captured Snowman, who is slowly and painfully dying in prison, plays a significant role in the search for the new serial killer. (In a scene which is reminiscent of “The Silence of Lambs,” Harry Hole bargains with the Snowman for some insight into the mind of the new killer.)
As The Leopard opens, the reader learns that Harry has resigned and fled to Hong Kong where he has become an addict who spends most of his time trying to evade his debtors (he gambles). In fact, Harry seems well on his way to a nameless death in a Hong Kong slum when Kaja Solness, a police woman from Oslo, finds him. She has two messages for Harry: another serial killer is on the loose in Oslo; and Harry’s father is dying. Allegedly indifferent to yet another bestial killer who has dispatched two victims by a cunningly constructed device called Leopold’s Apple, Hole responds by finding a way to smuggle cigarettes/opium to Oslo and returns home and to Oleg Hole’s hospital bed.
For the uninitiated, it should be noted that Harry Hole is, in every sense of the phrase, “a work of art.” Women always comment on the fact that he is “Tall (6-foot, 4-inches) ugly and blond.” He is also a shameless admirer of American pop culture and prides himself on his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood crime films (“Dirty Harry,” “French Connection” and the “Godfather” trilogy.) He plays Coltraine and Charlie Parker jazz, collects bluegrass and is currently reading a biography of Hank Williams Sr. His taste in art runs to painters like Edvard Munch and most of his favorite writers are (like Harry) manic depressives (Charles Bukowski, Jim Thompson).
His love life tends to be steamy and violent. He is totally devoted to a Russian paramour, Rakel, who is afraid to live with him because Harry’s arch-enemies invariably try to kill her and her son, Oleg. (The Snowman took them as hostages). However, Harry’s devotion to Rakel does not prevent him from sleeping with a bevy of sultry ladies, including Kaja Solness.
The Leopard has an intricate and convoluted plot which alternates between frantic attempts to intercept the killer. Each time Harry Hole learns the identity of a potential victim, he finds himself enmeshed in an interdepartmental power struggle instigated by a ruthless and ambitious official, Michael Bellman, who attempts to seize control of Oslo law enforcement agency by creating a competitive department called Krypos. For the political chess game to be a success, Bellman schemes to discredit both the existing police department and Harry Hole. As a consequence, Harry finds himself frustrated at every turn as Bellman contrives to interfere with the investigation and take personal credit for subsequent arrests.
When the number of fatalities increases to eight, Harry discovers that four of the victims spent a night in an isolated mountain retreat and ... the killer was also there. Hole and Kaja narrowly escape death when a scheme to draw the killer back to the cabin fails. Trapped in the cabin, Harry and Kaja are buried in an avalanche (created by the killer). Time and time again, Harry confronts suspects only to discover that they are not the killer he seeks but are often guilty of other crimes.
Of all of the Harry Hole novels, The Leopard proves to be the most complex. The plot becomes a tangled mass of intrigue with an atmosphere that grows dark and menacing. In addition, the excessive number of characters makes it difficult to remember who did what to whom ....and why.
Before Harry’s final confrontation, the reader may come to empathize with Harry Hole’s sense of disgust and loathing at the world around him. Certainly, The Leopard contains an excessive number of people who are motivated by self-interest: power, greed and envy. In all of the previous novels, Harry Hole has “got his man,” but each time, he has paid for his success by physical and mental suffering. It is no surprise then to discover that in the final, terrifying pages of The Leopard, a drugged Harry wakes in an abandoned church to find something painful in his mouth.
The Leopard by Jo Nesbø. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 517 pages.