The Leopard has all the usual ingredients of a Harry Hole novel. Harry is in the Oslo police, barely, having taken off to Hong Kong after the end of the previous novel (The Snowman) and wallowing in various pits of despair. A fellow detective from the crime squad, Kaja Solness, is sent to bring Harry back to Norway because the police believe that a serial killer is at work and Harry is their best detective. He isn’t tempted, until Kaja tells him that his father is dying.
Back in Oslo, the justice ministry is planning to merge the regional crime squads and Kripos, an elite unit that can be called upon to help with serious crimes, into one group. The head of Kripos, Mikhael Bellman, is a political operator who manipulates Harry’s boss into seconding Harry to his own team, with the aim of taking the credit himself for anything Harry discovers, so he will be head of the new set-up.
Seemingly oblivious to these machinations, Harry, Kaja and a forensic specialist investigate the crimes – soon discovering a link between them. By far the best parts of the book are the descriptions of Harry’s detective work and his leaps of intuition which gradually unravel more and more complex relationships between various characters. The Leopard is very long, but the author keeps up the pace by constantly ringing the changes as one suspect after another, and one clue after another, turn out to be red herrings or if not, shelved until later. In the process, there are plenty of personal dilemmas and tight spots for Harry, as well as some dramatic set-pieces.
To enjoy this book to the full, however, the reader has to suspend a lot of belief. Bellman is presented as being very ambitious but we don’t learn what Kripos does to try to solve the murders – only that they are completely unsuccessful. As there are several suspicious witnesses who obligingly provide clues, it seems highly improbable that the Kripos team would not have got at least some way down the path that Harry has uncovered simply by asking an old friend from a previous novel in the series, now incacerated in a mental institution, to do a bit of specialist internet research to uncover connections between the victims and others. Even Harry, however, ignores some suspicious aspects of some of the people he meets as a result of his inquiries – I can’t specify which as this would spoil the book for those who have not read it, but again, a simple investigation of some official registries based on information volunteered by more than one character would have cut several corners.
Coincidence also plays a large part, for example a man Harry meets in Hong Kong in the prologue happens to tell him much information about the unusual murder weapon and where it probably originated. And Harry does lots of things he should have learned not to do by now, particularly his reckless final pursuit with no back-up. By far the worst flaw in the novel, for me, is its gratuitous, excessively detailed descriptions of various forms of torture, which I found so revolting and unnecessary that I probably shall not read any more of this series. This is a pity, as the author writes well and can tell a good tale, and there are lots of nice touches of humour and word-play, which work well thanks to the typically able and sympathetic translation by Don Bartlett. I feel it is a pity that the author cannot rely on his excellent character of Harry Hole (or “Holy” as an Australian ex-colleague calls him), his atmospheric Oslo and other Norwegian locations, and his talent at plotting, to stand for themselves without the addition of truly horrible scenes purely for shock effect – presumably they are considered to have commercial value.
I purchased the Kindle edition of this novel, published in the UK in 2011 by Harvill Secker.
The Harry Hole novels are best read in series order (which is not the same as the order in which the books are being translated into English). The correct (reading order) chronology can be found at Euro Crime, including reviews of the previous installments. Towards the end of The Leopard, though, there is a paragraph summarising all Harry’s previous cases (including the first two series novels, which have not been translated), and during the book there are various characters from and references to earlier novels. These references, though, will be more satisfying to those who have read the earlier books.