Nesbo, Jo. The Bat.

NY: Random House, 2013, 1998.

A Norwegian woman has been raped and gruesomely murdered while visiting Australia and, because she was a minor television celebrity back home, the Oslo police have sent Harry Hole (pronounced “HOL-eh,” as he eventually gives up explaining) of the homicide division to observe the investigation. To Harry, “observe” translates as “mix straight in,” and he’s soon completely involved, interviewing witnesses and chasing suspects around Sidney, Brisbane, and assorted small towns in between.The local cops, whom he’s supposed to be assisting, end up following him around instead. Along the way, he loses his heart to a lovely bar girl from Sweden named Birgitta, and their pillow talk fills us in on the important parts of Harry’s background, especially the alcoholism he’s attempting desperately to drag himself up out of. Sidney also is home to a large gay community and that plays a significant part in the plot, as does the city’s illegal drug trade.

It’s a pretty straightforward police procedural, but the pace is very slow at first and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stick with it. But things sort themselves out around the halfway point and both the pace and the story pick up considerably as the Sidney cops discover it’s actually a serial killer they’re chasing. And then Harry talks Birgitta into helping out a little with the investigation — and things go terribly wrong.

However.

I have the distinct impression that the author had recently spent a few months wandering around Australia and was anxious to tell the reader everything he had learned about the country and its residents, and especially about all the sights he saw. Without the force-fed and unnecessarily detailed travelogue, mostly in the first half, this would have been a substantially shorter book. Nesbo did the same thing in his second novel (which I read first because this one wasn’t available in English), packing Harry off to Thailand, and giving us a crash course on Bangkok street names. Will we never witness the guy investigating a crime in his native Norway?

Nesbo also appears to consider it necessary to include an almost cartoonish local sidekick to explain all the foreign stuff to both Harry and the reader. In the second book, it’s a large, bald, female cop who happens to be American. In this one, at least at first, it’s a large, bald Aboriginal cop who happens to be an ex-boxer. But the sidekick part does get a lot darker this time. Incidentally, all the Aboriginals Harry meets — even the drunk in the park — spend a lot of time reciting native folktales, the presumed metaphorical purpose of which is seldom clear. That’s when they’re not giving economics and anthropology lectures.

The plot itself — the murder, the clues, the investigation, the eventual resolution — isn’t a bad story. But it could have taken place anywhere — Los Angeles or Oslo as easily as Sidney. There’s simply nothing specifically Australian about any of it. So why bother? Except to report on “What I Did Last Summer,” I suppose. I expect I’ll try some of the later titles, but I’m not in a particular hurry.

And why in the hell did they translate most of the later books in this series into English, and then wait fifteen years to make the very first one available? Not what I would consider good marketing.

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