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“One should be careful mixing law and morality,” Jo Nesbø’s crime-fighting protagonist is warned in the dying moments of Phantom. It’s a tasty statement, and a knowing one, too. 400 pages into proceedings, not a single character had traversed this tightrope successfully. But then again, what sensible reader would demand solid moral guidance from a bestselling crime thriller?
Phantom is Nesbø’s latest Harry Hole novel. Unlike the formless titular entity, this Norwegian writer’s reputation has amassed both shape and colour: the author of tales packed full of violence, brutality and exploitation. It is for this reason, alongside their close geographical proximity, that Nesbø has garnered comparison to Stieg Larsson. Rest assured that if the prospect of such grizzly affair dissuades, Phantom breaks rank and stops shy of visiting on you the truly unpalatable.
The story picks up as Harry returns to Oslo after a career hiatus in Hong Kong. The city has changed during his absence, transformed from the battleground of rival gangs into the territory of just one. The dealings of the criminal underworld have undergone the slightest of shifts: heroin is old news, now the smart money is the new, more potent drug, violin.
Established fans will know that Harry’s drug of choice comes not from a packet but a bottle. It is only when he becomes suspicious of the murder of a young junkie that a pursuit of Oslo’s backstreet dwellers is triggered. No longer a paid member of the police force, Harry has no other option than to fly solo. As he endeavours to solve the case he reveals ever more layers of corruption.
This is a novel with pace and verve. Despite Nesbø’s wordcraft delivering little more than the perfunctory, with clunky narrative and shamelessly hammy dialogue, his ability to intricately plot and maintain genuine suspense really packs a punch here. The plot becomes increasingly dynamic, with set-pieces that, at times, recall a James Bond adventure at its most ludicrous and inventive.
Phantom is unlikely to set tongues on fire, but it will certainly quicken your heart rate.