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MIDNIGHT SUN
by Jo Nesbø and Neil Smith, trans.
Knopf, February 2016
273 pages
$23.95
ISBN: 0385354202


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jo Nesbø is a man of many talents. His official biography seems like a randomly-selected set of words from a careers test: musician, economist, footballer, writer. He's best known for his Harry Hole series, in which a tortured but brilliant detective, battling alcoholism and a corrupt system, solves complex crimes in a Norway that is inexplicably overrun by clever serial killers. These are long books full of meticulous plotting, vivid characters, lots of creative gore, and emotional drama lightened with touches of humor. Recent departures from the series include THE HEADHUNTERS (a short stand-alone featuring an unlovable corporate recruiter/art thief) and THE SON (a long stand-alone in which a spiritual drug addict assassinates people who wronged his father while remaining curiously charming).

BLOOD ON SNOW launched a new series about a small-time drug dealer in 1970s Oslo who reluctantly becomes a hitman for a drug lord before becoming a target himself. As MIDNIGHT SUN opens, we meet this man who has decided to call himself Ulf, because – why not? He has taken a bus to the northernmost county in Norway that reaches across the top of Sweden and Finland to border Russia. He's on the run and he knows there's no place to hide, but he'll try, in the vast, bleak emptiness of the Finnmark plateau. "It's like Mars," he thinks. "A red desert. Uninhabitable and cruel. The perfect hiding place."

It's not uninhabitable, as he discovers, meeting a joker of a Sami herder and a kind woman at a church, where he's gone to sleep after getting off the bus in the middle of the night with the midnight sun in his eyes. There's also her son and a preacher and various other townsfolk who make a hardscrabble living. He begins to feel at home, but it's not a place where he can hide for long. The harsh weather isn't as cruel as the southerners he's running from.

This novel is the opposite of the plot-intensive Harry Hole series. Though the threat is always around the corner, "Ulf" takes a philosophic approach to his new and possibly short life, setting up camp in a borrowed hunting cabin and spending time with the woman, who belongs to a Laestadian fundamentalist sect but is chafing under its strict rules and her abusive husband. He gets to know her young son, Sami herders, and villagers, coming to appreciate the strangeness and austere beauty of this remote part of the world.

This is a short book that pays more attention to the narrator's state of mind and the landscape than to intricate plotting (though there are plot threads that offer some knots to untangle). The hitman is actually an easy-going fellow who would rather not kill anyone and isn't very good at it, anyway. It's a gentler and funnier book than one might expect and, apart from one gruesome moment which is almost folkloric in nature, the violence is relatively minimal. When Nesbø leaves the mean streets for the far north, readers are in for something different – and it's a surprisingly pleasant journey.

§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, February 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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