Harry Hole is my kind of protagonist. Along with his Northlander cousins Kurt Wallender, Inspector Erlendur, and my flavor-of-the-month, Erik Winter, Harry fuses the come-hither blend of detective genius and lonesome hero that elevates the quotidian “police procedural” to something more.
Something else again beyond the throwaway sobriquets of “crime fiction,” or mere “murder mystery,” this distinctive company of desperados has redefined “noir,” giving a new meaning to this black night of the vestibule of our 21st century.
Brainchild of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, Harry Hole brings his quintessence of dust/doubt to some memorable cellars and valleys of human depravity. Whether he is chasing Russian mafia warlords in Oslo or hunting the Norwegian ambassador’s murderer in Bangkok, Harry sneaks under your skin before you can say “red herring.” Jim Beam is his poison of choice, the love/hate of his obsessive style. And when we thought Harry had been successfully hunted himself – and, in fact, terminated! – the hope of a hundred more happy huntings from Nesbo blew away with the cold fjord winds.
Harry doesn’t actually die. But we had to wait for his next installment in Police before we out-whistled our collective breath with relief. How to face our own bleak winters without Harry’s Skanda-noir for solace, for company?
Jo Nesbo’s book jackets bill him as the Jo-of-all-trades: musician, songwriter, and even economist (economist?!). Compellingly, with his close-cut Norwegian blond, Jo is a versatile incarnation of everyone’s Harry. Truly, all of our best characters always should be, and are.
Of course, in fairness, the genre’s genesis needs to track back to Henning Mankell’s iconic Kurt Wallender: the nonpareil Swedish inspector, wandering the lowlands of Swedish crime, and the coastal lowlands of the Skanda’s brooding winter soil/soul.
As the Wallender saga wound towards its inevitable end, after many satisfying crime solutions later, we lose Kurt not to an upcountry lowlife, or an Estonian renegade, but to betrayal: the mind that formerly found the connections to clues and criminal convictions was itself disconnected. The midnight sun giving way to all-consuming neurological fog.
The glacial chills of the Skanda terrain swallow another noir hero in Icelander Arnoldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur novels. This Reykjavik author’s chief inspector exits his own stories for a few books, leaving the junior detective staff to find the bodies buried beneath the forever freeze. And Erlendur? Brooding and “on leave,” somewhere in the uninhabited eastern wilderness, hunting for his lost brother, where there is no spring to melt the cold grim ice. To find the meaning of life? As if that could make any difference.
And is it only the Skanda male that finds this desperate core in the belly of the earth’s great cold? Norway’s Karin Fossum contributes her share of sympathetic – and, of course, damaged – investigators. Seemingly for men and women alike – authors and characters – the more broken and spiritually absent the protagonist, the more profoundly the crime can be solved/resolved.
Is this the new tragedy? No flaw, no epiphany, no transmuting of suffering into victory – not even a disconsolate existential angst – no ironic, low comedic sneer? No disappeared/disappearing Godot? Just a misaligned double helix of quirks, slightly more ethically bound than the creatures they pursue.
My current choice to warm the Skanda night is Ake Edwardson’s chief inspector of Gothenburg, Erik Winter. Combining the runway star-power of American novelist John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport, with a laundry list of unresolved personal issues, Erik is Harry Hole reincarnated in the centerfold of Italian Vogue, and sleepwalking aboard the Pequod, co-conspirator with Melville’s Ahab, ever-busy hunting the white whale, one leg stomping the unstable deck.
Making my way through the Erik Winter chronicles, I am still finding new crevices of dis-ease, surprising pockets of unrelieved anxiety to relish. Tell me again, how is this pleasure?
Is it because Inspector Winter’s restless pulse syncs with my own? Or because he hunts murderers with no motives, whereas I – at least – have the novel’s last line, and a new installment of my Skanda-noir obsession waiting on the doorstep, as the UPS truck rumbles up my street, heat-slick in the humid summer rain?