Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Bat by Jo Nesbo (1997, translated to English in 2012)

Do you remember the time about 10 years ago when everyone was reading Steig Larssen? Everywhere one looked - on the train, in cafes, on the bookshelves of friends and relatives - there sat at least one but often all three of the Millenium Trilogy. Then, just as suddenly, everyone moved on from the Larssen books and I somehow ended up with about five full sets given to me by well-meaning friends who knew I loved books and therefore thought I would fully appreciate the books they had enjoyed so much. 

Well, lately my friends and family seem to be doing the exact same thing with the Jo Nesbo Harry Hole novels. I have five of them sitting on my 'To Read' shelf (yes, I have a 'to read' shelf which is in a separate location to the rest of my books. I only have enough room for one bookshelf in my small apartment so only really special books that I want to re-read are kept. It's a hard but fair system.). I  decided that if I was going to do the series, I'd do it properly, so I started from the start and borrowed The Bat from the library.

Written in 1997, The Bat is the first Harry Hole mystery. However, it was not translated into English until 2012, after about eight other Hole mysteries had been translated and very popularly received. The reason for this delay soon became clear: The Bat is not a very good book. It is a bad, bad book. Really, quite terribly bad.

I was surprised to find out that The Bat is actually set in Sydney. Norweigan detective Harry Hole (said "hol-ay" or, in Australian, "holy") has been sent from his native Oslo to help the NSW detectives investigate the murder of a Norweigan B-list celebrity, Inger Holter. Hole is paired with Aboriginal detective Andrew Kensington, who was one of the Stolen Generation. I found the decision to set the story in Australia incredibly strange. Possibly because a Norweigan audience would be unaware of Australia's history, characters are constantly giving Hole long speeches about Australia's history and the Dreamtime. I know I'm from Melbourne rather than Sydney but I've managed to live my entire life without having a stranger tell me a 15-minute long story about Aboriginal mythology. It just doesn't happen and was a really clunky, awkward device.

As they investigate Holter's murder, the team of detectives discover that her death is likely one of a series of deaths, implying that there is a serial killer on the lose. That's all good, because serial killers make good subjects of detective stories. However, the longer the story goes on, the more it becomes clear this is story is only interested in men. All the detectives are men. All the major characters are men. The only way women are represented is as ancillary to men - they are wives, mothers, girlfriends, cleaners, prostitutes (there's always a bloody prostitute somewhere in these misogynist mysteries), but never detailed characters in their own right. I then realised that Jo Nesbo is in fact a man, not a woman as I'd previously assumed (yes, I'm a bit slow. Probably why I am not a detective!). As I have written about before, I find it very hard to enjoy stories without decent female characters and unsurprisingly I found the categorisation of the women in this book both grating and sexist.

After a traumatic event near the end of the book, the alcoholic Harry Hole goes on a massive bender in Kings Cross. Again, I'm from Melbourne not Sydney and the book was written nearly 20 years ago but there is no way a foreigner could go on a three-day binge in the middle of an Australian capital city the way Hole is supposed to. He wasn't robbed, beaten, thrown into jail or even apparently noticed by anyone else. I've been out drinking in Sydney at night on a weekend (although not binge drinking) and I did not buy it at all. It seemed like really lazy writing. If he needs to go on a bender for the plot but also must emerge relatively unharmed, have him drink in his hotel room. Don't pretend that it happened while he was wandering around one of Australia's most notorious nightspots. Your audience is really not that stupid.

This book is pretty terrible. Harry Hole is an arsehole who does terrible things without any apparent consequence. Jo Nesbo is a sexist writer and the plot is at times not only unrealistic but downright ludicrous. But a lot of people whose literary opinion I respect have liked the series (and, incidentally,  not read this book), so I am assuming that the reason it took so long to be translated was because of the flaws I have noted here and I will give the series another go. Once some time has passed and I've forgotten how bad this one was, though...

Two stars.

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