I am one of the many crime fiction zealots who have been loyally committed to Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole saga since its beginnings in the faraway year 1997, when the first installment in the series, titled The Bat, was published and beckoned the arrival of a crisp new approach concerning the staples and tropes of the crime fiction genre, while also presented one of the most cherished and discussed detective protagonists, the renegade Oslo CID Inspector Harry Hole. Killing Moon is the 13th book in chronological order and it comes after 4 years of silence from the Norwegian superstar crime writer who, during that time, wrote both a standalone novel, The Kingdom, and two collections of short stories, The Jealousy Man and Other Stories and Rat Island and Other Stories (original title: Rotteøya Og Andre Fortellinger) which has not been yet translated into the English language. Thus, this was one of the hottest releases in the genre for 2023 and, despite my frantic attempts at getting a free ARC, I had to wait until the official publication date (May 25) in order to see where the story was going after the tragic fallout of the previous book, The Knife. In a nutshell, I was disappointed by the final result for reasons that I will try to clarify later in this review, but what I would like to mention here is that there is a large fraction of the Nordic crime fiction readership who are feeling drained by the repetition of certain mannerisms that were indeed exciting, albeit two and a half decades ago.
Killing Moon clearly doesn't pursuit the alteration, or even transformation, of the genre's traditional recipe, being another classic police procedural with heavy thriller undertones that aspires to attract the reader by means that are linked with the so-called Exploitation Fiction, meaning the authors using gratuitous violence, or explicit sex scenes -borderline pornographic- in their stories as a way to engage the reader. The atrocities and rampage that Nesbo graphically describes in his latest outing don't serve the plot's needs and seem to exist just for the sake of the shock effect, a cheap ploy, especially for such a renowned figure in the crime fiction firmament. In fact, the portrayal of violence here comes on a par with that of The Leopard (#8,), a book for which Nesbo himself has stated that he may have gone beyond the pale in respect to the depiction of brutalities. Furthermore, there is another issue: the violence always targets women, a motif that many Scandinavian crime writers like to employ repeatedly, and Nesbo has offered his take on the matter in an interview that he gave in The Guardian in 2020, justifying his choice: "Violence against women is a problem in society—it is something we should talk about. I would be more worried if there was an absence of violence against women in fiction because it’s a problem in real life…".
Nevertheless, there are those who find Nesbo's fixity on the subject rather problematic. In her review of Killing Moon, published on Observer, Cat Woods detects a latent misogynism in Nesbo's oeuvre as the Norwegian crime master tends to sketch the female characters as one-dimensional, in a manner resembling scorn, even cruelty. Not all women are “parasitic bimbos on the hunt for a suitable host” like the first two victims of the villain at hand and Woods's conclusion is a slap in the face: "Storytelling that relies on tired cliches that frame women as hapless gold-digging victims who are lucky to have an ancient, alcoholic ex-cop on their case is a literary tradition we can do without." (OBSERVER) Harry's alcoholism doesn't play a major part in this installment, the author focuses more on his feelings of immense grief and guilt over Rakel's demise that left him alone in the world, searching for meaning and purpose in the bottle. It should be noted that even though Killing Moon can be read by a first-timer in Nesbo's fictional universe, it would be truly helpful if you were versed in the main characters' arcs and their personal history/background as, apart from Harry, we encounter once again Katrine Bratt, forensics examiner Alexandra, detective Sung-min, the high-end lawyer Johan Krohn, the Minister of Justice Mikael Belman and others. Keep in mind that if you haven't read The Knife, there are major spoilers throughout the course of this novel, so beware. Do yourselves a favor and read The Knife first, a much better novel, in any aspect, than Killing Moon.
The story begins with Harry Hole being in Los Angeles in a state of self-imposed exile from his hometown Oslo as a form of self-punishment for his past actions that led to Rakel and Bjorn's deaths. Nesbo writes about Harry's banishment: "Following Rakel’s death he had sat at the airport, looked at the departure board, and rolled a dice that determined his destination would be Los Angeles". As Harry sits in a bar, hell-bent on drinking himself to death, he is approached by an elderly woman, Lucile, who strikes a conversation with him and confesses that she owes a lot of money to some ill-mannered individuals after a failed attempt at producing a feature film. Harry instantly likes her and decides to help when she asks him to lend a hand in case that the loan-sharks appear to demand their money. The result is that they are both captured while getting an ultimatum: they have ten days to find a little less than 1 million dollars to let Lucille live. It is for that reason that Harry decides to take on a job offered by Johan Krohn who acts as an intermediary in behalf of a wealthy real-estate mogul, Markus Roed. Roed finds himself in a tough predicament as he is the only person who links the two murdered victims whose bodies were found in remote places in Oslo during the previous weeks. Harry accepts to work for Roed, to clear his name as far as the public opinion is concerned, and asks an exorbitant amount of money as a reward to be able save Lucile's life. The main problem is that Susanne Andersen and Bertine Bertilsen were both last seen at a party organized by Roed and then vanished from the face of the earth. Harry will have to race against time to find the culprit, a new serial-killer stalking the streets of Oslo, and exonerate his client in order to get the money he so desperately needs.
The weary veteran detective assembles a team to help him in the investigation which runs in parallel with the official one conducted by the police, more specifically by Katrine and Sung-min. Moreover, Harry has to deal with something equally serious: his child, little Gert who was conceived after a wild night with Katrine several years ago, an one-night-stand that was supposed to be of no consequences for both of them. We read as Harry slowly becomes acquainted with the little guy, taking on a role that we cannot imagine him playing successfully due to his various addictions and self-destructive behavior that ravaged his existence, as we have witnessed in the series as a whole. Nesbo writes: "The most satisfying lullaby Harry can offer to a child turns out to be “a low, slow chanting in a rough voice that now and then hit the notes of an old blues song about the perils of cocaine.”, an apt remark illustrating how far Harry truly is from becoming a conventional father figure. The story unfolds at an even pacing and features all the plot trademarks of Nesbo's writing: outlining the intertwining of the authorities and the press, plenty of red herrings and deflections aiming to disorient the reader, multiple perspective narrative with the narrators succeeding one another in a frenetic tempo and so on.
Nesbo also does something he generally tends to avoid, at least in the Harry Hole novels. He includes several chapters from the perspective of the villain, a glimpse into a disturbed, sick mind. In those parts, we read about the mysterious man who likes to call himself Prim, a nickname of course as his real identity is revealed later in the story, harboring a nightmarish childhood abuse history that made him seek revenge but, above all, something else, even more important: to be loved. Regarding his motivation and intent, he says (in an inner monologue): "Speaking of feelings, he needed to keep in mind that revenge was not the objective. Losing sight of that could risk his being sidetracked and lead to failure. Revenge was merely the reward he would grant himself, a by-product of the real purpose. And when it was completed, they would kiss his feet." Another thing that vexed me was the whole parasite thing invading the story. I found it to be unnecessary, perplexing and adding nothing to the overall narrative. The gritty descriptions of the ways in which the victims are killed are hair-rising, but are not integrated in a wider frame that would reveal the author's intentions regarding the novel's tone. The constantly alternating POV doesn't work for Nesbø as it used to, and the readers can't help but feel that many characters remain largely underdeveloped. Harry seems to have lost his magic touch and now resembles some of the typical Nordic fictional detectives, lacking his distinctive marks that made him a legend. The finale is redeeming, however it cannot cast a pall over the novel's shortcomings, and it is due to those flaws that I deem Killing Moon as one of the weakest chapters in the Harry Hole series.
On a final note, I would like to congratulate the translator, Sean Kinsella, for his smooth and faithful rendition of the original text. If you are a diehard Harry Hole fan, then you shouldn't skip Killing Moon. However, if you are to begin now, I would advise you to read the books in order, to be able to discern the totality of the overarching narrative's greatness as it permeates the 13 novels of the saga.
Harry Hole #13