The Redbreast by award-winning crime novelist Jo Nesbo of Norway is ambitious and epic in its scope. It is the sequel to his first novel featuring off-the-rails alcoholic cop Harry Hole, The Devil’s Star, which won the Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel. For those readers who may be new to the exploits of Hole, he could be considered Norway’s equivalent of Dirty Harry Callahan. He’s not as ultra-violent and he’s perhaps more thoughtful, but it’s still a fairly apt way to describe him. Harry is investigating the smuggling into Norway of a very rare and expensive weapon, a German-made Marklin rifle, one favored by assassins around the world. Who could have wanted to spend the money necessary, equivalent to buying a new Mercedes, to buy such a rifle, one that fires 16mm bullets capable of piercing armor? Who are the killer’s intended victims, and what are his motivations?
Harry Hole’s case against the neo-Nazi Sverre Olsen seems to be air-tight and impossible to lose. But Sverre is freed on a technicality when one of the judges - an associate, citizen judge - does not take a required oath in the courtroom. Instead, it was taken in the main judge’s office “just before the case started,” rendering Olsen’s conviction “invalid”. He’ll be a “free man for at least eighteen months until his case comes up again.” Harry senses there might be a link between Olsen and/or the resurgence of neo-Nazism in Norway and the illegal importation of the Marklin rifle into Norway, if he could only find out what the link is.
The Redbreast takes its readers from 1944 and scenes of Norwegians loyal to Hitler fighting in the trenches in bitterly cold weather against the Russians to the years of 1999 and 2000, when Norway hosts peace conferences and a visit from the President of the United States. Those who fought on the side of Germany believed, as much as the Resistance fighters did, that they were doing what was ultimately best for the people of Norway. Though they fought on what would become the losing side, they fought bravely against Russian encroachment. They were repaid for their bravery and sacrifices by being put on trial as traitors after the war and serving time.
The lives of one group of soldiers who fought in the trenches are followed in the book, alternating with chapters depicting events of 1999-2000. One of the soldiers, Daniel Gudeson, is greatly admired for his daring and exploits by the others, such as when he shot a Russian soldier and then risked his own life to bury him in the frozen snowy ground and sing hymns over his grave. A soldier who idolizes him almost to the point of worship is Gudbrand Johansen, aka the redbreast, aka Uriah, a name taken from the Biblical story of King David sending his general Uriah to the front to die so that he can be free to pursue Uriah’s wife. Many other characters’ names are taken from the Bible, like South African policeman Isaiah, who leads Hole to the man who smuggled the Marklin out of Africa to Norway.
Jo Nesbo skillfully weaves the twin plot lines together to relate how sins of the past refuse to die and influence the affairs, actions, and sins of people in the present. The Redbreast is a thrilling, gripping tale of political intrigue, love, and a serial killer with a multiple personality disorder. Fans of Harry Hole will rejoice, and mystery/thriller fans unfamiliar with him will find a new way to feed their need for brilliantly crisp writing that will live with them long after they finish reading the novel. It’s fairly lengthy at a little over 500 pages, but it’s fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing, so it reads like a shorter book. I highly recommend this book to all lovers of the mystery genre who appreciate tersely crafted tales of murder and a love and revenge that transcends time.