Harry Hole isn’t the most unlikely literary hero ever.
He is one of the more complicated. The star of a mega-successful series that includes Nemesis, The Redeemer and The Snowman, Harry Hole is a bleak Norwegian police inspector who’s really good at catching serial killers and mass murderers.
For the record, in Norwegian “Hole” is a two-syllable name. It’s only with an Americanized pronunciation that “Harry Hole” becomes a juvenile pun.
Written by Jo Nesbø, the Harry Hole series takes a Scandinavian sensibility to the classic hard-bitten detectives of American crime fiction. He’s got the lone wolf tendencies, hard drinking ways and a refusal to quit until a case is solved. Nesbø refracts all that through a darker glass, so that even among the heroes (if such is the correct word) of notably bleak Scandinavian detective fiction, Harry Hole stands out as an exceptional example of the species.
Harry isn’t just a hard drinker. He’s a nasty alcoholic who can’t seem to stay on the wagon for the duration of an entire book. Even when he’s not drinking, he often fills in with other vices: gambling, sex and drugs, of course. But Harry’s obsessive drive to solve difficult crimes is its own form of compulsive, addictive behavior. He has an inability to stop until “justice” (or its bleak approximation) is served. Even as he completely unravels his own life in its pursuit.
A disastrous personal life is a given. Harry’s many addictions would ensure that anyway. His obsessive devotion to work all but guarantees personal unhappiness. Being a love interest, friend or ally to Harry Hole isn’t always fatal. But it is almost guaranteed to leave a scar or three. The woman that Harry truly loves has had one horrific thing after another afflict her. They spend more time apart than together. Maybe the ones who died got off easily.
Harry operates in an environment where corruption and political maneuvering are not only givens, they’re flip sides of the same coin. Harry’s refusal to observe any sort of “brotherhood” code with his fellow cops makes him unpopular and a frequent target for retribution. Even as other cops need his skills, they’re usually plotting to screw him over in some spectacular, baroque fashion.
What makes readers so avid to spend time with Harry Hole?
While his disregard for his personal well-being is alarming, the myth of a hero so unconcerned with any considerations of self has a certain appeal. Harry’s only focus is getting justice for victims of crime. He’s willing to take any kind of abuse to accomplish that task. The idea of that kind of crusader is comforting. To the extent that the necessity for his existence isn’t in and of itself terrifying in a crippling way. You only need selfless monster hunters when the monsters are real.
But more than that, Harry Hole is fascinating. He’s not an incorruptible. Harry will gladly cross any line required in the pursuit of justice. But even as he wallows in darkness, Harry displays a kind of primal morality. He’s the crusader for lost causes. Someone needs to care about the victims. Maybe Harry’s checkered life has left him with a kind of empathy his colleagues can’t quite fathom.
One of the most interesting things about Harry Hole is the sucker’s game of hope he plays with himself, the characters around him and, for that matter, the reader. Harry was damaged from his very first appearance, in The Bat. And while that debut ladled on all the deprivations readers have come to expect of Harry, it also provided something rarer: a bit of hope. Hope that Harry could overcome his demons. Hope that his life might have room for some light to balance out all the darkness.
That tease of hope is at the heart of why readers keep coming back to Harry Hole. He’s willing to self-destruct for a good cause. At times, he’s almost determined to self-immolate. But he can’t quite seem to let go of that last shred of hope, that bit of humanity that won’t go away. For as often as he fails, for as often as he not only gives in to the demons but embraces them, there’s that possibility. He tries. Not always successfully and usually not for extended periods, but he tries. He tries to be better. It makes him hard to give up on.
Harry Hole may ultimately be doomed. A happy ending might not be in the cards.
But a reader can’t quite shake the conviction that he deserves one.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on May 18, 2015.