The Leopard by Jo Nesbo, tr Don Bartlett

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.

Read other (very positive) reviews of this novel at: Euro Crime, The Book Bag, The Independent and The Guardian.

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.

11 thoughts on “The Leopard by Jo Nesbo, tr Don Bartlett

  1. Maxine – Thanks for this excellent review. I admit I haven’t read this one, but I do love Harry Hole’s character; he’s quite enough, as you say. No need for gratuitous horror, which I don’t care for anyway. And the disbelief factor sounds a bit disappointing, too. Well, I like this series very, very much, so I’ll probably give this one a go. Not right away, though…

  2. I am certainly going to read this one, but I´ll probably wait until I find it in the library.

    And this is not the first time I have wondered where KRIPOS and similar branches recruit their people! 😉

  3. Very interesting review, Maxine. I’m a big fan of Nesbo and enjoyed ‘The Leopard’ (though not as much as ‘The Snowman’, partly because it seemed to be covering some of the same ground). My feeling is that Nesbo’s primary strength lies in his characterisation, particularly of Hole, and his dialogue. His plotting can be wonderfully ingenious but, as you say, often depends on the reader’s willingness not to think too hard about what’s being described. I also think that at times Nesbo’s eagerness to surprise the reader with yet another twist is at the expense of psychological or narrative plausibility. I’d really like to see him write something simpler and more naturalistic that would play to his real strengths, but I suppose that’s not likely while he’s selling millions with the current formula. And I agree about the torture scenes. I wonder if they really do have commercial value – do many people really enjoy reading that sort of material? A bit worrying, if so.

    • I agree, Michael – also that there are similarities and “similar grounds” between this book and The Snowman – also the nasty policeman has similarities to an earlier nasty policeman (The Redbreast, etc). The Leopard is an exciting read but I;d love to see this talented author move away from such fiendish and evilly clever serial killers and onto something more interesting….

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  5. I can’t remember much from this book(I read the norwegian version a time ago), but I agree that The Snowman was better. I do believe that it wasn’t that obvious as the author of the review says about the fact that anyone could have volunteered. In Norway we just often son’t do that . Simple as it is. The Leopard is a little to long though, and it takes off at the end. It’s hard to top The Snowman though. It’s just one of the best books I’ve ever read in the genre.

    I can’t wait for Phantom 😀

    (Late answer, yay for Google)

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  7. Oh, woe to the gratuitous violence and torture. Why is that deemed of commercial value? It sure beats me. Who needs or wants that? What about character development, thinking, an interesting plot and descriptions of location, people and culture?
    I share the frustration. I don’t get why this [allegedly] has commercial value.
    I appreciate your very good review and candor.
    If I’m really into a book, I do skip violent scenes; it doesn’t take anything away from the read.

  8. thanks, Kathy – it has been said by defenders of these passages that they are “hived off” so can be ignored, and that there are not many of them. Not good enough I say, but let us hope that the next book relies on the other strengths of this author- plot, character and atmosphere, rather than the horror aspects.

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