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from the April 2010 issue

Jo Nesbø’s “The Devil’s Star

Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao

Twenty-three-year-old Camilla Loen has been found dead in her Oslo apartment, her finger severed, a red diamond star under her eyelid.

Twenty-three-year-old Camilla Loen has been found dead in her Oslo apartment, her finger severed, a red diamond star under her eyelid.  Days later, the severed finger of a second missing woman, the well-known stage actress Lisbeth Barli, arrives in a parcel at the police department adorned with a five-pointed red diamond ring.  Then, another victim, a twenty-eight-year-old woman, is found dead in her office bathroom.  Hidden in her earring, detectives find a red diamond in the shape of a five-pointed star. She too has had a finger severed.

A serial killer is afoot in Oslo, and in The Devil’s Star, detective Harry Hole—“the lone wolf, the drunk, the department’s enfant terrible”—is close on his heels. Harry is a recurring figure in the novels of Norway’s much-acclaimed crime-writer Jo Nesbø; this installment of the series finds him on the brink of personal and professional collapse. Haunted by the unsolved murder of his investigative partner Ellen Gjelten, Harry has spent sleepless nights (“sweat lay like a clammy film of make-up on his face, and his heart felt light, but stressed, like a ping-pong ball on a concrete floor”) stymied by uncertain leads on her death. His obsession hasn’t yet confirmed his festering suspicions against his colleague Tom Waaler, but it has already destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend Rakel, jeopardized his employment, and wreaked havoc on his sanity. “Whatever it was, it was the wrong moment to wake up,” he thinks to himself upon confronting a new day.  “You should do something else at this time of day. Such as drink.” 

Though Harry’s department dismissal papers have been issued, his ever-sympathetic boss would still rather see him do “something else” than drink. So before the paperwork is finalized, Chief Inspector Bjarne Møller puts Harry on the unfolding case (after all, “We know what your alternative to sitting here is, don’t we,” Møller tells him). Harry may be in a sorry state, but he is still the only member of the Oslo squad to have previously worked on and solved a serial killing.  He’s also a relentless sleuth who rises to a challenge—which is precisely what this case presents.

“This would be an easy job,” the city paper’s crime reporter observes. “It was a sexy case in every way, with most of the ingredients that any crime reporter could wish for.” Indeed, The Devil’s Star features a trail of beautiful dead female victims, a fetishistic clue- (and diamond-) dropping murderer, and a brilliant but precipitously lapsing alcoholic for its detective.  Classic—arguably, clichéd—components, to be sure, but it’s no accident that Nesbø’s novels repeatedly top bestseller lists in Norway, Denmark, and Iceland and have won a host of Scandinavian crime-writing awards. Nesbø cleverly withholds a key element as he spins The Devil’s Star’s plot: the murderer’s motive. Though the stylistic precision of the killings display clear intent, the dead women show no sign of assault and seem to bear no relation to one another.

“Convenient serial murders are rare, boss,” Harry observes at one point.  Is this Nesbø voicing a sly boast of his mastery of the genre? The Devil’s Star is more than a whodunit; while piecing together the serial killer’s trail, Harry must grapple with the remains of his relationship with the unforgettable Rakel, decrypt Tom’s double-dealings, and protect his own life. Effective crime fiction leads its reader to take special notice of the mystery’s key details but then misleads the reader as to their significance—a subtle trick that Nesbø (unhindered in translation) repeatedly employs. The exposition of the novel’s compelling secondary plotlines is interesting in its own right, but also—conveniently—  affords ample opportunity for Nesbø to further develop the murder case.  Paced with cinematic expertise, The Devil’s Star takes time to sketch memorable portraits of its secondary characters and linger on their sometimes conflicting desires even as its plot accelerates forward.   The murders may have been “carried out too perfectly, almost mechanically, according to the book,” as Harry notes, but luckily for the reader, “according to the book” is precisely Nesbø’s element.

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