The Snowman

  • Jo Nesbo, Translated by Don Bartlett
  • Knopf
  • 400 pp

Ice figures take on sinister features in the latest thriller featuring Oslo’s ace detective Harry Hole.

Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman is the fourth book about Oslo’s best detective, Harry Hole, but it stands alone just fine. Plus, it has all the requisite elements of a thriller: a complex hero at the center, an equally complex villain, plus a gallery of red herrings, more than enough to keep you guessing.

And if the skies weren’t dark enough already, Nesbo gives us plenty of atmosphere through Hole’s observations. The reader gets a sense of life in Oslo; this is one of the achievements of the book. Another is the use of language. Nesbo has a fine sense of detail and how to make certain details significant, and others — we in the biz call these clues — completely transparent. In fact, Nesbo is something of a magician, performing one sleight after the next with icy calm.

Although the book begins in 1980, the bulk of the story is present day. Harry Hole has had FBI training to help him find serial killers (which is interesting, because Norway has so damn few of them). We’re lucky that the Snowman comes to save the day, and gives Harry a run for his money, if not for his life.

The killer is called the Snowman because the killer builds one — a snowman — near the homes of his intended victims. The real snowmen face inward, toward the house. And occasionally, part of a snowman is replaced with a human part. A head, for instance. For Harry, it’s part of the job, but he must juggle it with the few interpersonal relationships he has. Harry is trying to get over a failed relationship with Rakel. That Harry still loves her, and is still devoted to her son, Oleg, says a lot about the detective’s character. Likewise, when the gorgeous cop Katrine Bratt shows up, Harry resists temptation, though it’s clear that the two of them are attracted to one another.

But Harry’s not perfect, and he sometimes explodes with frustration and anxiety. As the pressure mounts to find the Snowman, so does the pressure for Harry. And for Nesbo, it’s a chance to strut his stuff as a writer. Take this passage, where the police dogs are too afraid to venture into the woods after a killer, so Harry must go:

Harry had walked barely a few yards into the forest when he was overtaken by an intense, almost unnatural silence. He shone the flashlight down on the ground in front of him because every time he pointed it into the forest, shadows ran between the trees like jittery spirits in the pitch black. Being isolated from the dark in a bubble of light didn’t give him a sense of security. Quite the opposite. The certainty that he was the most visible object moving through the forest made him feel naked, vulnerable. The branches scraped at his face, like a blind man’s fingers trying to identify a stranger.

Or this passage, where we get an insight as to what makes Harry tick:

Harry could feel the adrenaline rush, the trembling that always came when he got first scent of the brute. And after the rush came the Great Obsession. Which was everything at once: love and intoxication, blindness and clear-sightedness, meaning and madness. Colleagues spoke now and then about excitement, but this was something else, something special. He had never told anyone about the Obsession or made any attempt to analyze it. He hadn’t dared. All he knew was that it helped him, drove him, fueled the job he was appointed to perform. He didn’t want to know any more. He really didn’t.

That The Snowman gives us suspense and a veritable gallery of memorable suspects makes it a great read. Once Alfred Hitchcock talked about people taking a roller-coaster ride— how they would scream going down the hill, and laugh when they were finished.  Some people like to be entertained in this way, Hitch said, and he was just a fellow who built roller coasters.

The Snowman is a first-class roller-coaster ride.

Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy award-winning director and cameraman who also writes mysteries. His D.C.-based book Drink the Tea won the PWA/St. Martin’s Press Competition for Best First Private Eye Novel. His second mystery, Steal the Show, will be published in July 2011. Visit his website at

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