Phantom is a crucial chapter in Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series.

Image provided by Amazon/Vintage

At the end of Harry’s previous adventure, the broken down ex-cop fled his life in Oslo to attempt a new start in Hong Kong. Phantom opens three years later. Harry still bears the scars of his recent cases, but is sober, relatively healthy and working as a debt collector.

Harry returns to Oslo when Oleg, his surrogate son, now 18, is arrested for the murder of a junkie/drug dealer. Oleg has become an addict himself and bears some understandable anger toward Harry. After reuniting with Rakel, Oleg’s mother and the love of Harry’s life, Harry uses his old contacts to delve into the murder, hoping to exonerate Oleg.

Oleg’s path intersects with that of the mysterious Dubai, the reclusive drug kingpin of Oslo who controls violin, a powerful new drug. Harry encounters old friends and rivals as he inexorably moves toward the truth about the murder and a brutal showdown with Dubai.

Solving the crimes at the heart of Harry Hole novels often is secondary to the impact they have on Harry. In Phantom, Nesbø uses the murder and drug story to tell an intensely personal tale about his damaged hero. Harry may start the story on a healthy footing, but it’s only a matter of time before he re-engages his various demons: addiction, obsession with solving crimes, inability to compromise and a compulsion to flout authority. More than all those, his inability to walk away drives much of the drama, including a heartbreaking climax that leaves Harry hanging on quite a thorny cliff.

By the point Phantom arrived, Nesbø had Harry down pat. If Harry’s actions were never quite surprising, the psychological and emotional depth that Nesbø infuses into the character make them compelling. Nesbø is infamous for teasing fans with the possibility that Harry can change. Phantom demonstrates that he can and can’t. Harry was able to live a healthy life when divorced from everything that was familiar. Back in his old milieu, some regression was inevitable. The difference this time is Harry’s awareness of his foibles and how much he truly struggles against giving in.

The focus on Harry often leaves other characters paling in comparison. But the intensely personal nature of the crimes in Phantom gives Nesbø the opportunity to spotlight Rakel and Oleg in a way that made the best use of those characters. Oleg, especially, leaves a strong impression in a variety of charged scenes with Harry. Dubai is an effective phantom and a key revelation lands at just the right time, a surprise that is perfectly logical. Along the way, Nesbø takes some pointed swipes at the war on drugs and political grandstanding, adding some real world punch to the narrative.

Even more so than other Harry Hole novels, it is crucial to have read the earlier installments before turning to Phantom. For fans of the series, it’s a powerful and important turning point.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on November 3, 2015.

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