The outstanding Harry Hole thrillers from Jo Nesbø

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo, a Harry Hole thrillerOver the past twenty years, the Norwegian novelist and musician Jo Nesbø has been writing a series of crime thrillers featuring homicide detective Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo police. More than 30 million copies of these novels have been sold worldwide, translated into over 40 languages. Harry is one of the most engaging protagonists in the genre: contentious, prone to depression, an alcoholic, but a truly gifted investigator who takes on the most difficult cases.

Below is a list of the eleven Harry Hole novels published to date, with links to my reviews. In parentheses following each title is the year of first publication in the original Norwegian.

The Bat (1997) — Where it all began for Harry Hole: the Norwegian master-cop Down Under

The then 32-year-old detective is in Sydney to lend assistance to the Australian police following the murder of a young Norwegian woman there. Harry is paired with an older detective, an Aboriginal man named Andrew Kensington, who seems bent on introducing him to the history, culture, and language of those he still sometimes thinks of as “his people.” But it’s not long before Harry finds himself immersed with Andrew in the search for a serial rapist and murderer — and, to no reader’s surprise, he quickly demonstrates that he can turn up leads and spin theories far faster than any of his hosts. Read the full review.

Jo Nesbo, author of the Harry Hole thriller series

Jo Nesbo

Cockroaches (1998) — Harry Hole investigates child pornography and pedophilia in Bangkok

Norway’s ambassador to Thailand is found lying dead with a knife in his back in a Bangkok brothel. To ensure that the investigation is fumbled and the episode covered up, the politicians who govern the Norwegian police arrange to dispatch an alcoholic detective to take charge of the case, fully expecting that he’ll rush to one of Bangkok’s thousands of bars and drink himself into oblivion for the duration of his stay. Surprise! The detective, Harry Hole, arrives in Bangkok and immediately goes on the wagon. And, to Harry’s surprise, the Thai detectives in the homicide unit turn out to be honest and highly competent, defying every preconception about corruption and incompetence in the force. Read the full review.

The Redbreast (2000) — Nazis in Norway, a mysterious assassin, and an insubordinate detective

Harry finds himself on the trail of a would-be assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity unknown to him, but so is the target. To begin with, all he knows is that someone has paid a fortune to acquire what is described as the assassin’s rifle of choice, and he’s determined to discover who bought it, and why. Meanwhile, having screwed up a major assignment and created an international incident in the process, Harry is ordered to investigate a neo-Nazi organization and sidetrack his work on the rifle. Naturally, he ignores the orders and doggedly pursues the trail of the overpriced murder weapon. Read the full review.

Nemesis (2002) — Gypsies, bank robbers, and the Norwegian police

In the fourth novel in the series, a murder committed in the course of a bank robbery engages more and more of the Oslo police as other, similar robberies take place and city officials demand results. Eventually, Harry is assigned to the robbery detail that’s run by one of several of his arch-enemies. Trouble ensues (of course!) when Harry insists on viewing the initial robbery — the focus of the investigation — not as a bank job but as a homicide. Meanwhile, one of the several girlfriends in Harry’s past turns up dead, not incidentally the same evening Harry has dinner with her in her apartment. Read the full review.

The Devil’s Star (2003) — From Jo Nesbø: ritual murder, blood diamonds, and Norway’s CSI

Harry is living his own special brand of hell in an alcoholic haze on almost a daily basis. His absenteeism from the Oslo Police and his stubborn insistence on disobeying regulations almost as a matter of principle are pushing everyone around him to the breaking point. Rakel, the love of Harry’s life, has banished him from her home. His boss, Bjarne Moller (no, not Barney Miller of TV fame), is close to the point where he will refuse to cover up any more for the incorrigible detective. His nemesis, a fellow detective named Tom Waaler, appears to be gathering steam to kill Harry, who believes Waaler is “The Prince,” the head of a large gun-smuggling ring. Read the full review.

The Redeemer (2005) — Harry Hole, the Salvation Army, and a gay Croatian hitman

Despite all the early signs of a disturbing and credible Harry Hole tale, The Redeemer gradually unveils an awkward dependency on all the traditional tools of manipulation employed by so many of Nesbø’s forebears — and all too many of his contemporaries. The story becomes virtually unwieldy, with seemingly unrelated murder mysteries intersecting in suspect ways and too many characters turning out to be dramatically different from the ways they were first portrayed. To make matters worse, the theme behind the book’s title comes to light in the first pages and is repeated throughout in heavy-handed ways. Read the full review.

The Snowman (2007) — Harry Hole investigates a two-decade-long string of serial murders

Harry has just turned 40. He is unaccountably sober, for a change, and he’s exercising regularly. His long-time lover, Rakel Fauke, has kicked him out of her house (again) because she forever finds herself in second place after his job. At the Crime Squad, Harry is now working with a sharp new detective recently transferred to Oslo from the Bergen police. Katrine Bratt may even be Harry’s equal as an investigator—and as a workaholic. Together they set out to explore a missing-persons case that is, in fact, probably a murder. Read the full review.

The Leopard (2009) — Is Jo Nesbø the world’s best crime novelist?

If I had to pick a single “best” Harry Hole thriller, this would be the one. Harry has fled to Hong Kong to drown himself in alcohol and heroin following his resignation from the Norwegian police. A serial killer he captured too late had upended his life by separating Harry from the woman he loves. However, a clever young detective from Oslo manages to track him down and persuade him to return with her because he is urgently needed to take on a new high-profile case, the murder of a member of the Norwegian Parliament. Harry consents only because the young detective tells him that his father is seriously ill and confined to a hospital. Read the full review.

Phantom (2011) — Another brilliant Harry Hole tale from Jo Nesbø

Harry, no longer a policeman, returns to Oslo for the first time in three years from Hong Kong, where he’s worked as a debt collector for a shady local character. Back home, he confronts the chilling reality that 18-year-old Oleg, Rakel Fauke’s son, has been arrested for the murder of a junkie and is now in prison. The police department refuses to allow him to investigate the case because, by their lights, it’s closed: the evidence is compelling. In pursuing his desperate effort to prove the innocence of the boy who used to call him Dad, Harry becomes embroiled in a puzzling network of junkies, street people, dope dealers, corrupt policemen, and a politician on the make. Read the full review.

Police (2013) — An alcoholic detective in a compelling murder mystery set in Oslo

Harry Hole is now an ex-policeman, employed as a lecturer at the police academy. His nemesis, a younger detective whose corrupt involvement in the drug trade Harry has uncovered but can’t prove, has just been named Chief of Police. Now someone starts murdering police officers, and doing so at the sites of previous, unsolved murders. Harry’s old colleagues on the force become desperate as the murders continue. The pressure on Harry to come out of retirement becomes fierce. Read the full review.

The Thirst (2017) — Many surprises in the new Harry Hole detective novel

At first, there’s no serial killer in sight, and Harry isn’t even a member of Crime Squad anymore. He’s a lecturer at the Police College, where his classes are attended not just by police recruits but often by active police officers as well. Harry is Norway’s reigning expert on serial killers. So, when one gruesome murder turns into two and threatens to become three or more, Police Chief Mikael Bellmon is forced to press Harry back into service. Read the full review.

For further reading

I have also reviewed four standalone thrillers by the same author. You’ll find them at From Jo Nesbø, murder above the Arctic CircleThe most recent Jo Nesbø novel is a winner, Jo Nesbø: outstanding Scandinavian noir, and Another suspenseful crime novel from Jo Nesbø.

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