Jo Nesbo’s protagonist, Inspector Harry Hole, is a daunting piece of work. A chain-smoking manic depressive and an alcoholic, Harry’s job security is tenuous. In fact, several administrators are eager to fire the hulking, short-tempered Hole. Refusing to observe office hours and openly displaying contempt for his “superiors,” Harry’s presence rankles everyone, including most of the women in his life. The only factor in his favor is the fact that he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is the department’s most efficient employee. Time and time again, he identifies and pursues murderers like some mythical fury, following culprits into other countries (Australia, South America, etc.). As a result, Harry Hole has become something of a legend (and a pariah) in the Oslo police department.
This time out, Harry is matching wits with a serial killer who marks murder sites with a snowman. His victims — usually women, but with one notable exception — are dispatched in a Grand Guignol style that litters the landscape with body parts that are sometimes “rearranged” and/or reconstructed (in a manner similar to the victims of serial killers on the American TV show, “Dexter”). Inspector Hole suspects that there is a common theme that ties all of the murders together. When he begins to delve into the private lives of the victims, he discovers a disturbing common feature: infidelity. In addition, DNA testing reveals that all had given birth to children who had been “fathered” by someone other than the victim’s husband. Repeatedly, the Snowman sends a message to each proposed victim: “You are going to die because you are a whore.”
Eventually, Harry discovers that the murder victims have been marked by something much more serious than mere infidelity. Since statistical data indicates that 20 perent of Norway’s children owe their existence to men other than those identified as their “legal fathers,” Hole searches for and finds a more disturbing factor. In spite of numerous false leads, he finally learns of a mysterious medical center called the Marienlyst Clinic where patients are treated for an obscure hereditary disease called Fahr’s Syndrome. Infected genes, passed form a “carrier male” are dormant for a time, but eventually, they spread through their hapless victims, destroying their motor skills by a kind of calcification that renders the bones and facial features misshapen and grotesque.
Suddenly, Harry is faced with a disquieting possibility. Is it possible that the Snowman is a victim of Fahr’s Syndrome? Is he systematically eliminating all of the women who have become unwitting carriers of the disease? When DNA proves that all of the infected victims were fathered by the same (unknown) male, Harry begins to speculate. Does this “carrier” heedlessly pass the infection on to numerous unsuspecting victims or does he know what he is doing?
Snowman is populated by the usual inept, foolish and arrogant members of the Oslo Police Department; however, Harry is destined to encounter an impressive number of “unusual” characters ranging from the vain and egotistical to the obsessed, psychotic and paranoid. Among the most interesting are: Arve Stop, the editor of a controversial magazine appropriately called “Liberal.” Arve is also a popular talk show guest and celebrity who, according to rumors, has a compulsion to seduce every attractive woman that crosses his path (sometimes several in a single day). Stop often selects his “overnight guests” from studio audiences and parties. Then, there is Idar Vetlesen, a gifted plastic surgeon who has “redesigned” the features of some of Norway’s most famous citizens. In addition to his profitable surgery, Idar frequents a local hotel that is a hangout for prostitutes and sexually abused children. (Adar also claims to be an authority on Fahr’s Syndrome). Another provocative member of the medical profession is Mathis Lund-Helgesen. As a child, he was called “Mathis No Nips” due to the fact that he was born without nipples. As luck would have it, Mathis intends to marry Rakel Fauke, Harry’s old flame (Yes, Rakel has finally had enough of Harry’s drinking and brooding). Finally, there is Katrine Bratt, recently of the Bergen Crime Squad who has been reassigned to Harry Hole’s department. Harry soon discovers that Katrine is both capable and unstable. There is something dark and sinister in her past and Harry suspects that Katrine has “her own agenda.”
At some point in Snowman, each of these four characters (Stop, Vetiesen, Mathis and Kathrine) are suspects (Yes, one of them is the Snowman). Part of the mystery surrounding the serial killer’s identity involves the disappearance of a corrupt, disgraced Bergen policeman, Gert “Iron” Rafto. In fact, Rafto’s reputation for brutality had made him a suspect in the Snowman murders — a solution that was abandoned when Rafto disappeared and the murders continued. When Rafto’s body is finally discovered (the only male Snowman victim), Harry blundered on a disquieting theory. If Harry is Oslo’s most capable policeman ... and if Rafto was Burgen’s most efficient investigator .... could this mean that the Snowman knows that he will never be caught if he can simply eliminate investigators who have the reputation of being the best?
Snowman contains the usual Jo Nesbo signatures: tension and horror wrapped in a marvelous collection of arcane facts. For example, Harry ponders the fact that the female Berhaus seal will not mate with the same male twice — a dilemma that prompts the male to kill her rather than give her up. The reader also learns that Harry is a devoted follower of American culture and often delivers passionate diatribes on American politics (he is critical of the Bush administration), pop music (Harry collects Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen) and American film (Harry thinks that “Starship Troopers” is a satirical attack on American culture.
However, despite the fact that Snowman is one of Nesbo’s best thrillers, a kind of anxiety dominates the action. Although Harry Hole remains a dark and paranoid anti-hero, he seems to be suffering from an number of ailments. Everyone comments on his “loss of weight,” and Harry now has the added inconvenience of having his apartment contaminated with mold. In spite of his insomnia, Harry soldiers on, armed only with a carton of cigarettes and a stock of Jim Beam. Certainly, by the time he emerges from the riveting conclusion of Snowman, he is battered and exhausted. Hopefully, it will take more than a mold infection and the loss of a finger or two to send him out to pasture.
Snowman by Joe Nesbo. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 384 pages.