Title: The Bat
Author: Jo Nesbo
Narrator: Sean Barrett
Publisher: Random House Audiobooks
Read: April 19-27, 2013
Before Harry took on the neo-Nazi gangs of Oslo, before he met Rakel, before The Snowman tried to take everything he held dear, he went to Australia. Harry Hole is sent to Sydney to investigate the murder of Inger Holter, a young Norwegian girl, who was working in a bar. Initially sidelined as an outsider, Harry becomes central to the Australian police investigation when they start to notice a number of unsolved rape and murder cases around the country. The victims were usually young blondes. Inger had a number of admirers, each with his own share of secrets, but there is no obvious suspect, and the pattern of the other crimes seems impossible to crack. Then a circus performer is brutally murdered followed by yet another young woman. Harry is in a race against time to stop highly intelligent killer, who is bent on total destruction.
I was first introduced to Jo Nesbo’s novels when picking up the audiobook version of The Snowman in our local library and sitting through hours of spine tingling storytelling on my daily commute to and from work. Nobody does unbridled brutality quite as well as Scandinavian authors – maybe there is something in the dark and cold winter weather which inspires the more horrific scenes found in that particular genre.
When searching on the web for more Nesbo novels I was bitterly disappointed that his earlier works had not yet been translated into English. So I eagerly awaited the Australian release of the English version of the first Harry Hole novel – The Bat. There are certain similarities between Scandinavian and Australian crime novels – both seem to be able to capture both the dark and flawed elements of human nature and the undercurrents of hopelessness and despair inspired by humans living in unforgiving environments. I was very interested how the two would mix – a Scandinavian thriller set in an Australian landscape.
In The Bat, Harry Hole is invited to Sydney to help solve the brutal murder of a young Norwegian woman, Inger Holter, who disappeared on her way home from work one night. With little information to work with, Harry and his Australian Aboriginal partner Andrew Kensington visit Inger’s flat to find clues regarding any persons who would have had contact with Inger prior to her death or had reason to harm her. Through the investigation, Harry comes into contact with a motley assortment of societal misfits in Sydney’s King’s Cross district – prostitutes, drug dealers, alcoholic landlords, transvestites, homeless drunks in the park, ex-boxers, circus-clowns and heroin addicted cops – each one playing a part in the enquiry. Initially focusing their efforts on a male acquaintance Inger confessed to have fallen in love with, the circle of suspects soon widens as some people involved in the investigation are brutally slain. With the pressure mounting, Harry must not only fight his own demons, but also try and outwit a sadistical serial killer before he takes the very thing which is dearest to Harry.
There were elements in this book I really enjoyed and some I didn’t, though it undoubtedly provided entertainment value and Nesbo’s trademark chill factor. Being the intrepid commuter I once again opted for the audio version and wasn’t disappointed – the narrator Sean Barrett perfectly captured not only the different accents perfectly, but also managed to infuse each character with their very own personality, which is no mean feat in a novel with mixing different nationalities and containing a cast of many. With the Australian element so skilfully captured in the narration, the setting and characters really came to life in the way the book alone may not have achieved.
It is a very different Harry Hole we encounter in the beginning of the novel – enthusiastic, optimistic and polite, Harry’s demons are not unleashed until later in the story, when things become close and personal. Nesbo introduces plenty of red herrings and twists, and his trademark unbridled violence which is certainly not for the faint hearted. Australia and its indigenous people must have made a big impression on Nesbo, as reflected in the inclusion of Aboriginal legends and Australian politics related to the treatment of its indigenous population and the injustices they endured. At times these inclusions felt chunky and a bit out of context and lecturing, and I did not quite understand the clues contained in the fables Andrew tells Harry to send him cryptic messages about the killer’s identity. Likewise, the end felt somehow inconclusive and sudden, and I had to rewind several times to see if I had missed a vital clue somewhere. With Harry being a smart detective, one of his decisions towards of the end of the novel seems uncharacteristically stupid and proves to be the one mistake which will haunt him for the rest of his career – I couldn’t quite work that one out and put it down to Harry being in an alcoholic haze for the later part of his stay. Considering that Harry was invited into the investigation as an observer only, and more for political reasons than needing him for the investigation, he somehow manages to make some major decisions and fatal errors without getting pulled into line.
However, having said all that, I am still glad to have managed to get a glimpse of a younger and more innocent Harry, and the very events which have left such deep scars on his psyche. With Nesbo being one of Scandinavia’s best crime writing exports, I will undoubtedly pick up many more of his novels – and therefore reading The Bat will help to give Harry a personal history and make him a more rounded character. If you are interested in reading this novel, I wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook version – where I may have lost interest in the printed word, Sean Barrett’s compelling narration kept me engaged with the characters all the way.
This book formed part of my 2013 Audiobook Challenge, as well as the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge (translated fiction).