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The Redbreast    by Jo Nesbo Amazon.com order for
Redbreast
by Jo NesbÝ
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Harper, 2008 (2007)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Redbreast is the third in Jo NesbÝ's excellent Norwegian police procedural series starring angst-ridden, alcohol-bedevilled Crime Squad Detective Harry Hole. It moves back and forth in time between Harry's modern day misadventures and the exploits of both the Norwegian Resistance and those who fought for Hitler on the Eastern Front during World War II. What I enjoyed most about the novel was that NesbÝ doesn't paint the latter as trite villains, but shows some as idealists, fighting to save their country from the Russians.

As The Redbreast opens (and watch as that bird flies through history in this novel), Harry Hole and his partner and close friend, Ellen Gjelten (whose optimism infects even Harry), are working in a liaison role during a U.S. Presidential visit. After communication problems cause Harry to shoot a Secret Service agent, part of the spin on the event necessitates his promotion and reassignment to the Norwegian Security Service, where he's buried in clerical work. Ellen is then partnered with Tom Waaler, whom she dislikes.

But Harry isn't one to be sidelined. He soon picks up on the oddity of a unique German semi-automatic hunting rifle ('the ultimate professional murder weapon') smuggled into Norway, and obsessively follows a slim strand of evidence to uncover a developing assassination attempt, rooted in his country's history. The killer? The author reveals early that he's an old man dying of cancer, who'd 'given everything he had until there was no more to give, apart from giving way, giving in, giving up.' Aside from that, NesbÝ makes readers guess at the assassin's identity, background and motivations as the novel progresses.

Back in the modern day, there are skinheads and neo-Nazis with tendrils into the police force itself. Our dying killer connects with neo-Nazi Sverre Olsen, using him to acquire the German rifle, the act that ultimately sets Harry Hole on his trail. While Harry pursues his unpopular (with his superiors) investigation from Norway to South Africa, Jo NesbÝ takes readers back to the horrors of the Eastern Front of World War II, with an at times confusing cast of characters and pseudonyms, disappearing corpses, romance (between a soldier and an aristocratic nurse in Vienna) and blackmail.

Harry's investigation leads him to meet Rakel Fauke (with whom he has a strong romantic liaison in subsequent books) and her son Oleg, to whom Hole becomes a father figure. It also leads to the loss of someone close to him, a catastrophe that will haunt him for years to come, and that becomes the catalyst for key future events (having read the series out of order, I was especially interested in finding out how this had happened.)

As always, Jo NesbÝ gives readers an excellent and intricate mystery in The Redbreast, with an intriguing maze of historical misdirection, and real-life, shades-of-gray ambiguity in his good guys and villains - an ambiguity that Harry Hole well appreciates. If you enjoy a masterfully plotted mystery or are interested in a fascinating World War II arena of which most North Americans are unaware, then The Redbreast is a must read.

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