I adore the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo and, from the first books I read in translation have been struck by his slick prose, tight plotting and wonderful characterization, characterization that is so skilled it allows the reader to both experience and understand the hero’s strengths and weaknesses and thus forgive and support his actions. Headhunters, a one-off book set in corporate Oslo, did not impress nor captivate me nearly as much.
While the first person narrative contains the usual Nesbo flair for thrilling plots populated by ghastly villains and miscellaneous others who exit and enter, the characters in Headhunters failed to leave an impression. Part of the reason for this, I think, is because from the outset, they are quite superficial. The lead character and POV of the novel, headhunter and part-time art thief, Roger Brown, is a narcissistic prat (and unattractive – in the psychological and emotional sense – anti-hero) who boasts about not only the way he can read people, but practically every other element of his life: his outstanding reputation in his main gig as a corporate headhunter, his grasp of FBI interrogation techniques and perfection of them, his beautiful art-gallery owner wife, his hair, his manner of dress etc. etc. While he tries to suggest he is comfortable with his relatively short stature, there is also a sense in which he does protest too much and the reader cannot help but think that Roger works hard to overcompensate. This is something that, in many ways, holds true when he meets the more than capable former executive and soldier Clas Greve, and decides he might be a suitable candidate for a top job. But when Roger learns that this man also owns an original Rubens, the cocky Roger decides to risk another job on the side; only, he ends up risking more than he ever bargained for and a deadly cat and mouse game, a head-hunting of a different and very final kind, ensues.
As mentioned above, I didn’t like any of the characters in this book. While I wondered if this was social commentary on Nesbo’s part, a sort of satire about how shallow and egotistic we’ve become, and the reader wasn’t meant to like anyone, I am now, on reflection, not so sure. After all, in Nesbo’s later books – the Hole ones – one of the great strengths is the marvellous shades of grey in which characters are painted, revealing the rich canvas of what passes for morality and how even ethics have a context. In Headhunters, no such complexity exists and rather than a three-dimensional picture of human foibles and choices, we are given a very superficial portrayal indeed.
Furthermore, the plot was clichéd in parts, too far-fetched in others (the scene in the outdoor toilet was just silly) and above all, predictable. Mind you, that didn’t mean I wanted to stop reading, Nesbo is a very good storyteller after all. It just meant I didn’t really care. I didn’t care who lived, who died or what the outcome was. I didn’t invest. That made me feel a little sad.
Reading that Hollywood is making a film out of this book surprised me. It’s not that original – I would have thought the Hole stories would have offered much more complex fare – maybe that’s the rub. Still, it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination and made for a quick summer read. It’s just not the Nesbo I have come to admire and look forward to so much.