[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2014.]
Some books don’t really start until half way through. For me, this was one of those. Once it finally did get going (after about two hundred and fifty pages) it asked some intelligent questions of the reader and started to put flesh on the bones of the main characters – a strangely polite, charismatic heroin addict who escapes from jail to begin a murder spree and the man trying to catch him, a soon-to-retire policeman with a checkered past. (And isn’t that quite a cliché?)
Jo Nesbo has created a piece of fiction that uses authentic-seeming places. He has given the story a pacy dynamic and gritty, smart dialogue but his stage is crowded with bit-part actors who have been given too much detail and colour at the expense of the main protagonists. A crime fiction author like Ian Rankin does not make this type of mistake. The Norwegian author asks us to accept the extreme violence of "The Son" without first giving much of an idea of why he is seeking such bloody revenge. His various methods of assassination are all a ‘punishment-fits-the-crime’ kind of message and that has some literary merit in it because humans with extreme ideals do often like to dress-up death as the ultimate ritual. What I question is revelling in the tawdry act of killing. The reader is given spurts of blood, hideous dog attacks, paralysing shootings, knife slashing, suffocations and other grimmly vivid brutality when personally I’d prefer to just have a suggestion of the way these victims leave the world. I don’t need the screams, eye-popping and bulging neck veins. I say, take out the gore and give me more – more credibility, more legitimate motivations, deeper reasons for their actions.
Still, what do I know? Nesbo’s books are fantastic commercial successes. There is evidently a huge appetite for this kind of stuff across the planet. Are we though, supposed to like The Son or have some empathy with him? He seems to feel bad after some of his greatest hits – he even weeps. Undoubtedly, those on his list are all people who have done genuine wrong but maybe I’m a bit odd in thinking that the vigilante ethic only leads to something like ISIS. Here though, the cloak of religion and a higher being is not used. Nesbo gives us the lone wolf. Conservative societies have had a long historical fear of the crazed individual, and there is some childish logic behind the stranger in town (at least a quiet, small town) being suspicious. Nesbo’s vengeance-seeker is not cold or robotic, however. By the end of the book we can understand him somewhat better but it takes too long to get that vital understanding that is needed to accept him as fully believable. The last one hundred and fifty pages of the book do have a nicely building tension to them though. There is a page-turning quality. You want to read on, and that is ultimately one of the tests of a good book.