A guide to Harry Hole

Jo Nesbo (c) HannibalIn some ways, the appeal of the Harry Hole stories is easy to pin down. Like so many modern detectives he’s got a few flaws. For a start, he’s a recovering alcoholic who often grabs a bottle when things get tough. Drunk or sober, he’s disorganised, and isn’t a particularly reliable boyfriend. But he displays many qualities too and never wants to let friends or colleagues down. He’s also an extremely determined detective who won’t let go and won’t stop until he gets his man. If it means sacrificing his job, or any hope of a stable personal life, so be it. Harry Hole detests corruption, and he’s no fan of inequality either.

Tall, lanky and with light blue eyes, readers have come to recognise his haphazard approach which often leaves him worn down, at his wit’s end, and in need of a bath. Yet behind that there’s a remarkable ability to multi-task as he negotiates the various players, leads, and far-flung locations in a case. Sometimes he juggles various aspects of a case alongside a love interest, and his personal and professional lives are mangled together. In the early books, he’s protected by his friend and superior in the Oslo police, Bjarne Møller, despite his madcap investigative style. But later on he comes into a lot of conflict with his boss.

Maybe the best thing about reading Harry Hole is Jo Nesbo’s writing (pictured right). At his most fluent, the narrative takes on a dreamlike quality as Hole rushes through the investigation blurring fact and feeling. It becomes like a stream of consciousness and Hole seems to glide through life, while at the same time catching all of its sharp edges. He may or may not feel the pain, but eventually he comes up with the information required to solve a case.

Nesbo plays with interesting aspects of history – Norway’s, Australia’s, Yugoslavia’s, even that of the gypsies – to give his stories greater depth and plenty of texture. However, he’s also a master of structured plotting and loves to engineer detailed set-pieces. There’s a theatre scene in The Bat that will have you holding your head in wonder, as someone in the story loses theirs. And, the concluding chapters of The Devil’s Star, Redeemer and Phantom will leave you stunned. Nesbo isn’t the rising star of Scandinavian crime fiction any longer: he has the leading role!

Because the series has been released in a fractured sequence in English, and because a great many readers now believe that Harry Hole is dead, we decided to put together a guide to the character and the books he appears in. We hope you enjoy it – do add your own comments below.

thebat100The Bat
The series starts in the most un-Nordic location possible as Harry Hole lands in Sydney, Australia. He’s there at the request of the Australian police, who are investigating the murder of Norwegian TV presenter Inger Holter. Her body, beaten and raped, has been recovered from the sea beneath a cliff. They don’t really want Hole’s help. His presence is merely to allay worries that Scandinavian tourism will dry up with the negative press. Working with Andrew Kensington, an Aboriginal member of the Sydney homicide team, Hole wades right in, making friends and enemies in the Bohemian quarter of Sydney where Inger worked. He and Kensington chase down some leads that take them into the Outback looking for a drug dealer, and we get a perspective on the Aboriginal experience. Perhaps because of its non-Norwegian setting, The Bat was only released in October 2012, after seven other Harry Hole thrillers had already appeared in English. Read our review here.
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cockroaches100Cockroaches
When we originally wrote this guide to Harry Hole, Cockroaches hadn’t been translated into English, but it eventually arrived in November 2012 and what you’re reading now is an update to this post. Hole has been drinking and trying to deal with what happened in Sydney, and he’s also angry about the rape of his sister, when his boss Bjarne Møller scrapes him off a barstool and puts him on the next plane to Bangkok. The Norwegian ambassador there has been murdered in compromising circumstances – they found him lying face down in a brothel with a knife in his back. Strangely, the old Buddhist dagger has reindeer oil on it. Partnered with an American cop who works for the Bangkok police, Liz Crumley, Harry Hole investigates both Norwegian expats and some very dangerous locals whom the ambassador owed money. The novel works at a slightly more sedate and thoughtful pace than some of the others in the series, though the killer does eventually manage to drag Hole down into the dark depths. The ending’s frentic, angry and crazy. Cockroaches was originally published in Norway in 1998.
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redbreast100The Redbreast
For English readers, The Redbreast is the second de facto Harry Hole novel. Appearing in 2006, it’s the first in Nesbo’s Oslo Trilogy, but came out a year after the third in the trilogy, The Devil’s Star. Confusing, huh? Well now you can buy all three books as a bundle on Amazon. The Redbreast opens with Hole on a routine stake-out during which he makes a split-second decision about a possible sniper – one which ends in disaster. So he’s ‘promoted’ to a quieter department, and becomes involved in a murder case which has roots 60 years earlier in World War II. The historical era of Norwegian-Nazi collaboration serves as both the backdrop for the killer’s motivations and the locus for the present investigation. Using frequent flashbacks, Nesbo deftly unravels past and present simultaneously. This case involves old diaries, a sniper rifle, a few Neo-Nazis, and enough red herrings to leave you guessing til the end.
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nemesis100Nemesis
Book two in the Oslo Trilogy takes place two years after The Redbreast and Hole is called to the scene of a bank robbery that’s gone south. The culprit has gunned down a bank teller in cold blood and all Hole has to go on is some grainy CCTV footage. Here Nesbo introduces Beate Lønn, a shy but brilliant member of the Robbery Unit who has a rare genetic condition: she never forgets a face. While scrutinising the video alongside Harry, she slowly comes out of her shell. Harry’s new girlfriend Rakel is in Russia seeking custody of her son, and Hole gets a call from an old girlfriend. After a night-cap and night of passion, he can’t remember what happened or even how he got home. However, his old flame is found with a bullet through her head. As with other books in the series, he’s being played by a nemesis – maybe it’s Detective Waaler. Nesbo also brings in a gypsy character along with lots of background on Romany gypsies.
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devilsstar200The Devil’s Star
Though it was the fifth Harry Hole book for Norwegian readers, The Devil’s Star was the first one translated for the English-speaking world. It’s a good introduction to the character and to Nesbo’s well-paced, tightly structured style, not to mention his dark sense of humour and taste for the outrageous. Hole and his team are investigating an unusual murder – the victim is missing a finger and under the eyelid they find a tiny, star-shaped red diamond. As new victims begin to surface, each with the same calling card, but a different digit missing, Hole is forced to team up with Waaler, whom he suspects is guilty of a long list of crimes – murdering Hole’s partner, running covert arms, and far-reaching corruption. Hole is off the wagon, working in an alcohol-fueled daze and clinging to Rakel and her son Oleg, with whom he has formed a bond. Watch for the pulse-pounding finale – another fine set-piece from Nesbo.
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redeemer100The Redeemer
This one first appeared in Norwegian in 2005, but was published in English in 2009. Work has become a bit of a battlefield for Harry Hole with Bjarne Møller’s retirement at the end of the previous book – he doesn’t get along well with his new senior inspector. You’ll have noticed that Nesbo likes to have tendrils of his plotlines reaching into the past and The Redeemer begins with the rape of a teenage girl back in 1991, at a Salvation Army youth camp. She keeps quiet about it, not wanting to damage her father’s reputation as he’s high up in the organisation. Further flashbacks in the book take us to the break-up of Yugoslavia, with Serb militias going on a violent rampage in Vukovar. A Croat survivor of this, now a hitman, turns up in Oslo and kills a Salvation Army officer. Harry Hole, Jack Halvorsen and Beate Lønn must investigate the case. At this stage Rakel has left him and has a new boyfriend. Nesbo concludes the book with Harry Hole facing two killers and a moral conundrum.
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snowman100The Snowman
Creepier than ever before, this Harry Hole novel has quite a horror feel to it – the killer takes a woman and leaves behind a snowman. A snowman with a hideous grin, the victim’s scarf around its neck, and pebble eyes that stare at her little boy who’s waiting for her inside the house. Another woman disappears and Harry Hole works alongside Katrine Bratt another detective who, like Harry Hole, has a complex past. The plot is complex too and sees them connecting other missing persons cases to the snowman murders, and an all-too-perfect television host who has interviewed Harry Hole becomes a chief suspect. When it comes down to it the killer is closer to Hole, and ex-girlfriend Rakel, than anyone at first realised and our hero finds himself in a race against time to save her. In one action scene, Hole loses the tip of one of his fingers. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Martin Scorcese is directing a film version of The Snowman.
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leopard100The Leopard
Harry Hole has been living in Hong Kong but returns to Norway at the request of Kaja Solness, a Crime Squad officer back in Oslo. It’s believed a serial killer is on the loose and when a female MP is killed, Hole teams up with the police to help solve the murder. All three victims are connected by the same ski lodge and the police attempt to use another member as bait for the killer. It goes wrong, however, and the killer escapes to the Congo. Hole and Solness follow and face grave dangers in Africa where they are captured, and the action takes them to the very edge of a volcano. The book contains many personal reflections for Harry Hole. During the story his father passes away, he meets once again with The Snowman of the previous novel, and seems to affirm that Rakel is the one love of his life.
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phantom100Phantom
Translated into English in 2012, Phantom sees Harry Hole returning to Oslo after three years in Hong Kong. His aim is to try and exonerate Oleg, ex-flame Rakel’s son, a boy to whom Harry Hole has been a father figure on and off during the series. Now an unruly teenager, Oleg has been living in a squat and is accused of killing a junkie. As the case unfolds it looks like Hole can get Oleg off the hook, but the boy has been dealing drugs. This brings Hole into contact with an organised, determined and innovative Russian outfit which is selling a powerful heroin substitute and seems to have influence within the police force. A sub-plot involves a drug-smuggling airline pilot. Every so often, Hole encounters an elderly man who drifts onto the scene and offers him help and advice – what does this strange phantom character know about Oleg? We’ve talked about Nesbo’s set-pieces before but Phantom’s ending really hits you like a brick in the face. It’s had many a reader typing ‘is Harry Hole dead?’ into Google. Read our review here.
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policeukcover100Police
When we first wrote this article, Police hadn’t been released yet, so this section has been updated. In this novel, you get to find out exactly what happened to Harry Hole after Phantom’s dramatic ending. It opens with a patient in hospital in a coma. He’s gradually recovering but we don’t know who he is. Meanwhile, Gunnar Hagen and his team of investigators are baffled by a series of murders that is taking place in Oslo. Someone is luring members of the force to the scenes of unsolved crimes, and then killing them in the same manner as the victim of the original crime. Both the Crime Squad and new chief of police Mikael Bellman seem out of their depth – but if Hole joins the investigation perhaps there will be a breakthrough. This novel sees some real changes in Hole and his motivations, and also looks closely at the meaning of justice. When he eventually joins the hunt for the killer there are two questions. Firstly, how will they catch this brutal assassin? Second, how will diving into a gritty case affect both Hole and his relationships with Rakel and Oleg? You can read our review of Police here.

The Thirst
When we interviewed Jo Nesbo, he was ambivalent about whether or not there will be another Harry Hole novel after Police, but we had a sneaky suspicion that the Oslo detective would be back… and we were right because the 11th book in the series was announced in September 2016, with a launch date of 4 May 2017. In this book, another serial killer is working in the city and they’re targeting people using the online dating service, Tinder. The MO reminds Harry of a nemesis from his past, so there could be a score to settle as well for the unorthodox detective.

Thank-you to Jeremy Megraw for his help with this article. For more Norwegian crime fiction, see our guild to Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series here.

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22 Comments

  1. Pingback: Book News (and other fun stuff!): March 22nd, 2013 | My Bookish Ways

  2. Barry Bernstein Reply

    Great character Harry Hole. I can’t believe his dead but still there is a bit of ambiguity,
    For me “Thw Snowman” was the best of the bunch.Infact I think its my favourite detective sory of all time.

    1. pjeagle Reply

      I too thought that Harry Hole died at the end of “The Phantom.” I’m delighted I was wrong. Can’t wait to hear the explanation when the next book comes out. “Police” cannot get here soon enough. Would love if Jo Nesbro were to come to the US and be interviewed so we can see the man behind Harry Hole.

  3. Janet Spain Reply

    I am extremely happy to hear that Harry Hole is not dead and that a new novel is on the way. I just bought The Redeemer, just published in the U.S. in hardback. Will probably have to read Phantom again before Police comes out!

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  6. Michael Braun Reply

    Guess I’m one of the lucky who were able to read the series more or less in order, since I really love hints/nods in books and movies towards other works of fiction (if I can spot them that is).
    Just one correction: Kaja Solness (Leopard) was not head of Crime Squad, after Bjarne Møller, now Gunnar Hagen leads the unit.

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  11. DB Reply

    I like the Harry Hole series, but find Rakel and Oleg to be irritating characters. Does anyone besides me share my view?

  12. Edith Ann Reply

    Jo Nesbo was very Clear that we would definitely know when Harry dies after he published Phantom. It took me a long time to get the courage to read Police after that. Plus, he left a cliffhanger! While it is unclear if he will immediately publish a HArry Hole novel again, at least we have some good characters left. I am very disappointed in the loss of one of my favorites though.
    I still find my favorite to be Redbreast. I found snowman to be quite unsettling and brutal.
    Does anybody have a list of Harry’s injuries so far?

  13. HH Reply

    I’m so addicted on his books, series with Harry Hole are amazing after I finish one book can’t wait to read another one :-]
    And I agree with DB, Rakel and her son are most annoying from entire book 😀

  14. vickyB Reply

    I’m addicted with Harry Hole!!!! He is my favourite detective! 😀 Great author!!! i don’t really like Rakel :p
    Where is Kaja anyway….???

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  16. BeatriceL Reply

    I’m reading Police now, after a whirlwind of Harry Hole novels this summer, not in quite the correct sequence, and I missed The Redeemer, but will go back and read it after Police. As I read I slip in online searches to see the locations mentioned in the novels, and stare for a long time at the images. I don’t know why I feel so connected to this character and his world. He’s a bit of a priest, a bit of a madman, a bit of a loser, a bit of a prophet. Love the writing, feel the world of Harry Hole very vividly, the storms,the heatwaves, posh neighborhoods, landscapes, stuffy jail cells, Harry’s office chair – a real world. I cannot travel this summer, but I feel as if I’ve been in Oslo many evenings, and now I want to really go there some day.

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  18. Aurèlia Reply

    I was very disappointed by Police after the brilliant writing of Phantom and the previous. Found it predictable and missed the particular style of Nesbo’s narrative and the touch and feel of Hole’s character that we could see in all the other books. I hope The Thirst will amend this feeling…

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