In Oslo, November 1980, as large flakes of snow drenches the land, a woman named Sara drives around Toyota Corolla, accompanied by her young son, to a house. She asks him to sit inside the car, while going inside the house to meet her secret lover for one last time. As they both reach their peak of sexual excitement, the man sees a ominous ‘snowman’ outside his glass window. Few minutes later, when Sara starts the car, she sees that her boy is terrified stating that he saw the ‘snowman’. She also hears the boy whispering something: “We’re going to die”. And, thus begins Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo’s serial-killer thriller “Snowman”, which is also the seventh book in the author’s detective series involving the complex protagonist, Harry Hole of Oslo Police Department. Despite few minor references, “Snowman” perfectly works as stand-alone novel, although those who are interested in reading hard-boiled detective novels could start from “The Bat” (1st in Harry Hole series) or “Redbreast” (first of Harry Hole’ to be translated to English).
The appeal of Harry Hole, the protagonist is a little easy to pin down. Like all modern, fictional sleuths, he’s got few flaws or ‘skeletons in the closet’: alcoholic, unreliable boyfriend, insomniac, obsessed with work and bogged down by the thought of letting down friends and colleagues. But, certainly there are many redeeming qualities about Harry like detesting corruption, multi-tasking and most importantly he’s got the guts and instincts to solve a case. In “Snowman”, Harry is at wits’ end as his lover Rakel and her son Oleg (the socially awkward boy has well-connected with Harry) has left him. Rakel has a new lover, a doctor named Mathias and she even thinks of marrying him. But, the central event that unsettles Harry’s happens at the onset of 2004 winter season. A young boy named Jonas wakes up at the middle of night and sees a ‘snowman’ (like the same ominous one that appeared in 1980) in his yard, and this thing is made out of the first snow of that peaceful winter. This ‘Snowman’ is also adorned with his mom’s pink scarf – a scarf he presented to his mother.
In the morning, the news of a young, missing mother brings Harry Hole to investigate. His initial research reveals the similar cases of missing woman – young mothers with children. Harry is also taunted by a anonymous letter, signed “Snowman”. A little later, another mother goes missing. This time, the “Snowman’s” head is replaced with the decapitated head of the missing woman. It all points to the fact that this might be first case of serial killing in Norway. Harry, who has previously hunted down a notorious serial murderer in Australia, obviously is the apt choice and as the letter shows, even the killer wants to directly challenge the detective. Katrine Bratt, a Lisbeth Salander-type detective, accompanies Harry in his investigation. The woman has her own inner demons to deal with, but provides interesting insights to track down the ‘Snowman’.
Jo Nesbo’s novels at its best, take us into the stream of Harry’s consciousness, making us understand the characters’ pain and his gut instincts. Like a typical detective story, Nesbo of course strews the narrative with elements of extreme violence, betrayal, sex. We are also introduced into new psychological terms and diseases, which are boasted to make the readers easily come to terms with the killers’ afflictions. There’s also the usual red-herrings, dead-ends and twists (some are so predictable), but what makes “Snowman” an immensely satisfying page-turner is Nesbo’s gnarly prose (translation done by Don Bartlett) that impeccably brings the creepy, horror-novel feeling. Nesbo also includes interesting tidbits about Norwegian history or the nations’ perspective to give depth and fine texture to his story. The novelists’ evocations of the crime scene or the set-pieces or even his domestic tableau are quite descriptive, so as to keep us entrenched in the atmosphere. Typically, as in most of Scandinavian crime thrillers, the stark & frigid weather becomes a character in itself, offering more chills. “Snowman” does have its share of inconsistencies and blemishes (at least for me, the killer’s identity was easy to predict), but for the most part it remains electrifying and terrifying. A movie adaptation of the novel is set to release in 2017, with Michael Fassbender playing ‘Harry Hole’ and directed by Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right one in”).
“The Snowman” is a chilling police-procedural novel whose narrative grip is diffused with relentless page-turning quality.