Nesbo, Jo. Cockroaches.

NY: Random House, 2013.

I have a thing for Scandinavian mystery writers and Nesbo’s series (now up to ten volumes) about Oslo police detective — and ongoing train wreck — Harry Hole has gotten steadily excellent reviews. But for some strange reason, it has taken them a very long time to publish the first few books in English translation — especially since several of the later books have been out for some time now.

(This second in the series was first published in Norway in 1998, and much of the technology on which the police rely has changed greatly during those fifteen years.) I’m one of those who prefers to read a series in proper order, so this approach is not only puzzling, it’s very annoying.

Harry is only in his thirties but he has a lifetime’s worth of problems. His mother died tragically and his father has never really recovered from the loss, the only woman he might ever have really loved died, and his sister (who has Down’s Syndrome) was raped and the perpetrator was never caught. It’s not surprising he’s a episodic serial alcoholic — but at least he never drinks when he’s working and he never works when he’s drinking. After a certain amount of public adulation after the successful conclusion of his Australian case in the first book (which I haven’t yet read, but I’m going to), he’s been sort of lying low, waiting for it all to blow over. But now the Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found in a sleazy motel room with an antique knife through his heart. The ambassador had been a mover and shaker in the Christian Democrat party but had stepped aside to make way for his long-time friend to become Prime Minister, and being packed off to the Far East was apparently his peculiar reward. And now the Foreign Office back home is anxious that the whole scandal be covered up and disposed of quickly — and Harry, they decide, is just the man for the job.

Bangkok is a difficult city for the average Westerner to deal with. Traffic flow is based on which vehicle is bigger (the smaller vehicle gives way and traffic laws don’t enter into it), the newest house on a street has the highest number (date of construction counts more than urban topography), and the poor consider the street a natural extension of their living rooms. Not to mention the city’s reputation in the field of sexual tourism, especially of the more perverse varieties, which also looms large in the plot. Harry has his hands full in figuring the place out, and also in dealing with the head of the local homicide squad — a large, bald, American woman who seems to fit right in. There are a surprising number of Norwegians in Thailand and as Harry investigates the ambassador’s murder — and becomes acquainted with his alcoholic widow and his slightly strange teenage daughter — he begins to get a feel for how things work and who might have wanted the victim dead. Which, of course, is not at all what he was sent there to accomplish.

There are lots of bits of humor strewn throughout the narrative but it’s essentially a noir sort of story and when additional people get killed, it tends to be in messy and unpleasant ways. My only problem, character-wise, is with Jens the currency broker, whose personality is rather over the top. The style is pretty straightforward, however, and the translation is generally very good and nicely colloquial. Apparently, his later books are much favored over his earlier ones, which may be why they were published out of order in English. Still, it’s not a bad way to lose a weekend.


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