Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Jo Nesbo made his name overseas with the Harry Hole series, more specifically the ones which take place in Norway, the main character’s home country. It took publishers a fairly long time to translate the first novel of the series, The Bat, which uncharacteristically takes us to Australia, where Harry Hole finds himself working as an observer for the police following the murder of a young Norwegian woman.
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Jo Nesbo Puts Harry in the Passenger Seat
I’m sure some of you may disagree with the following statement out of subjective reasons, but I think it’s fair to say Jo Nesbo has achieved a status of true (and for some, enviable) renown in the literary community as one of the foremost murder mystery writers of our time. For the most part, he was launched into fame with the Harry Hole series, and it all began back in 1997 with The Bat, a novel which was translated into English much later than his other works.
The book begins in a fairly strange fashion for those of us who are familiar with other works in the series, as Harry Hole finds himself clearing passport control in Sydney, Australia, far away from his own native world of Oslo. Despite being far outside of his element, he was called in to act as an attaché for the Australian police, that is to say, to act as an observer while they work to solve a case.
The case in question is the murder of Inger Holter, a young Norwegian woman living perhaps a little too fast and free in the land down under. Hole does his best not to step on any toes, conducting his own investigation on the sidelines, aided by an Aboriginal colleague, Andrew Kensington, who seems to have taken a strange shine to Harry.
After a few strangely lucky turns in the investigation, Harry and Andrew make a startling discovery: they are, in fact, dealing with a serial killer who strangles blonde women, a man who has been operating with such finesse his crimes hadn’t even been connected yet. What’s worse, they have a feeling the killer is nearby, hiding right under their noses.
As the case becomes increasingly complex and it seems like the killer has indeed found a way to commit a perfect series of crimes, Harry falls deeper and deeper into alcoholism, standing on the verge of losing it all before being sent back home empty-handed, his heart full of grief. The body count keeps on rising, and to find any sort of closure, Harry must take the reigns of the investigation and dive deep into a culture he knows little about.
Harry Holes’ Humble Beginning in The Bat
Like I mentioned it at the start of the review, The Bat was translated into English a few years after some of his other bestsellers, and as such, most of us are coming into this first novel in the series after having seen the best of what it has to offer. In contrast with novels such as The Snowman or The Leopard, this one feels a little tame and shows inexperience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading at all.
Once you manage to get past the unusual location (at least, for this particular series), things start to fall in place fairly quickly as Jo Nesbo gets to the meat of the matter quickly enough. Though we do follow Harry and get to learn his impressions in regards to his surroundings, we don’t even really get to know him by the time the first victim is being discussed.
Over the course of the novel, through certain dedicated segments and passages, we get additional glimpses into Harry’s inner world as well as his personal history, getting a good and close look at what drives him forward, and the sorts of demons he has been gathering on his back. Personally, I thought there were a few too many of these personal moments, but objectively-speaking, they do have their place in the novel, and anyone interested in Harry as much as the case will be glad for their presence.
Harry’s relationship with alcohol is also explored fairly thoroughly in The Bat, as well as a particularly traumatic event which I won’t spoil, but is brought up time and time again in future works. It is much more difficult than it appears to write a believably-damaged character, but Jo Nesbo has achieved this feat and used it quite aptly from there on out.
There is one particular aspect of the story Jo Nesbo handled with a veteran sort of mastery, and it’s the growth of Harry’s presence from start to finish. At the beginning, he’s just an observer itching to get back home as soon as possible, relegated to the background by his Australian colleagues. As the case progresses though, he grows right before our very eyes, taking greater charge of things around him, until he starts to shine bright like the brilliant and perceptive detective we know him as in the later books.
A Taste of Local Culture
While I’m not all too familiar with Jo Nesbo‘s biography, it seems to me like he has had at least one chance in his life to visit Australia and immerse himself in all that its culture and people have to offer. His descriptions of the cities, their histories, the people in them, and the sorts of lives they lead all give off an air of realism few authors could hope to match.
Nesbo pays particular attention to Aboriginal culture in The Bat, deviating from the main plot on multiple occasions in order to share with the reader traditional stories and insights which are only sometimes related to the investigation at hand. These moments are where the author’s inexperience really shines (or I suppose I should say shone, since he shored this up in later novels), in his inability to find a solid connection between the interesting knowledge he wants to impart on us and the story at hand.
Nevertheless, I personally found it fascinating to learn about a culture I haven’t really taken the time to get acquainted with, to see what myths and legends they explained the world with, the lot they wound up bearing, and what challenges they face now. Additionally, I should reiterate that while these segments don’t always relate to the main plot, more often than not they do and give the investigation interesting and unusual flavours.
Speaking of the investigation itself, while I did find the ending to have been somewhat weak, on the whole it was a solid and thrilling ride from the very start. Jo Nesbo already clearly knew back then how to pique our curiosity during key points, how to properly drum up the mystery, ensuring whatever answers we get inevitably lead to greater questions.
Though the ending itself might have been a little weak, the chase leading up to it is exciting and at times exotic, at least for a non-Australian such as myself. The further we get into the novel, the more we see the stakes raised, and without spoiling anything, there were a couple of rather daring twists which are still just as effective today as they were when the book came out.
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The Final Verdict
The Bat by Jo Nesbo might be twenty-five years old and a little late to the party relative to the other novels which were translated into English much earlier, but it remains an excellent murder mystery story in and of itself, combining a thrilling serial killer hunt with an authentic Australian backdrop. The greatness seen in Harry Hole’s later novels is already present here, even if a little raw.
If you’re a fan of the series and want to see what launched it off, or are just sold on the idea of twisting and winding murder mystery in an Australian setting, then I strongly advise you to give this novel the chance it deserves.
Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian writer, musician, economist, as well as a former football player and reporter. He is most famous for penning the Harry Hole series, which contains international bestsellers such as The Snowman and The Leopard. He has also authored The Doctor Proctor as well as The Olav Johnson series, in addition to which he also published a number of standalone works, such as Macbeth.