Blood on Snow is probably one of the most eagerly awaited titles of this year. After all anything by Jo almost certainly keeps the publishers in prawn cocktails for a bit. These days his worth is valued not so much in his own output but also in the number of books by other authors touted by their publishers as “the new Jo Nesbo”. Such claims are invariably totally fraudulent and I have yet to read one of them that truly lives up to the hype.
However, the problem for Jo is not the increasing number of imposters clinging to his coattails as much as the gap between his redoubtable Harry Hole series and the one- offs like Blood on Snow. And to be fair, that is not just a problem for him. I have yet to find any one-off by anauthor which compares at all favourably with their series output. But maybe that’s just me. The two previous Jo’s standalones, Headhunters, and The Son, have been sold as film rights well before they have appeared on shop bookshelves and Blood on Snow has already been added to the list. Does that mean Jo is primarily writing his standalones for the film market rather than book sales? I wish I could say no to that question, but I am not so sure. Probably, the better response is to judge the books on their own merits. On the best yardstick – do they live up to the Harry Hole books? – the standalones continue to be disappointing, That said, I did find The Son a great improvement on Headhunters. Even now I am not sure where I would place Blood on Snow. I feel it is on a par with The Son. It may even be marginally better.
Blood on Snow is surprisingly set in Oslo in 1977, the surprise being the date rather than the location. The date is probably explained by the context – the local drug war between the Hoffman ring and that of The Fisherman, so called because it operates out of a fresh fish shop. Naturally, anyone who has followed Harry’s adventures over the years cannot fail to have gleaned a bit about the Oslo drugs turf. In 1977 that turf was probably in its infancy and the market could therefore be a province shared uneasily between two local operators. Thirty years on the industry is likely very different, much more globalised.
Jo’s new hero Olav works for Hoffman as a fixer, a term he prefers to “killer”. But like Sonny in The Son, Olav is a sensitive soul and not at all like your run of the mill hired killer. His career began young, when he despatched his abusive drunk of a father with a ski pole after he had beaten up his mother once too often. He progressed, having failed as a bank robber and served time, and when he found he couldn’t hack it as a pimp because he respected women too much. Being dyslexic, he was also cut off from the more legitimate career opportunities. He is also somewhat reclusive, partly because of his psychology, but also because he needs to keep out of the way of his employer as much as the police.
Okay, so his fixes have largely involved people Hoffman wanted out of the way – The Fisherman’s sellers, or his own sellers who have put too much of the profits up their noses or in their veins. Olav can justify the fixes as being for the good. But that doesn’t entirely appease his guilt. He protects Maria, the pretty, and apparently deaf and dumb, girlfriend of a drug dealer he has fixed, so that she doesn’t have to go on the street to repay the debt her boyfriend owed to Hoffman. He also donated the money he was paid to off one of the Fisherman’s dealers to the dealer’s wife to support her four children. Despite all these positive attributes, Olav calculates he is getting near the point where the knowledge of his dealings with, and for, Hoffman means the drug boss will need to fix the fixer.
But, before we get to that point, Hoffman offers Olav one final fix before he lets him go his own way and enjoy a more normal existence. Hoffman wants Olav to kill his (Hoffman’s) wife. No reason is offered, and Olav doesn’t seek one. He just begins the project in his usually thorough manner, following the prey to a flat she frequents where she is regularly beaten then shagged by a younger guy. While Olav does not lose sight of the main objective, he incorporates one of his own. Reminded of the way his brutal father behaved towards his mother, Olav first offs the sadist. That’s when his problems really begin for the sadist is Hoffman’s son. You can probably guess that Olav then decides to take his boss’s wife under his wing, though it is better to say she takes him under hers. They plan to leave Oslo and forgetting his previous existence begin life together in Paris – a parallel here with the heroes of Olav’s favourite and only book Hugo’s Les Miserables. But first he needs money, and at the same time put Hoffman out of the way permanently. Against his better judgment he decides to do a deal with The Fisherman.
The conclusion reminds me of Jo’s short story Jackpot which, on screen, became a hugely entertaining black comedy. The final shoot-out in the crypt of a church is almost as surreal as the one set in a sex shop in Jackpot. And as in Jackpot, the dominant theme of Blood on Snow is that of betrayal, or rather one betrayal after another. That gives the book a complexity that should be appealing to most readers. In Olav we have another lonesome hero who justifies a huge chunk of empathy, and a role which Leonardo diCaprio is apparently up for. But most of the other characters are too plastic for my liking, and maybe the background drug setting could have been portrayed in a bit more depth and colour. If I hadn’t known this was a Jo Nesbo book, if it had come to me with another name on it, and a sticker proclaiming its author as the new Jo Nesbo, I probably would have responded – not a chance.