The Bat by Joe Nesbø is the first book in the popular Harry Hole Series, a Scandinavian noir police procedural series set in Norway featuring Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Crime Squad. The Bat, first published in Norway in 1997, was translated and published in English in 2012.
Celebrated American author of detective fiction Raymond Chandler once said, “The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” That fits my thoughts on Jo Nesbø’s character Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Crime Squad perfectly. The Harry Hole character displays the brilliance of a Sherlock Holmes combined with the angst of a man constantly battling alcohol and the demons from his past.
In some ways, the appeal of The Bat is easy to fathom. The principal character, Inspector Harry Hole, like so many modern detectives, has a few flaws. The first flaw has become almost a trope with crime fiction detective characters. Harry is a recovering alcoholic who often turns to alcohol when the going gets tough. But in Hole’s case, trope or not, it works. Drunk or sober, he’s almost always disorganized and isn’t a particularly reliable boyfriend. Yet Hole also displays many positive qualities, such as never wanting to let his friends or colleagues down.
Harry Hole is an extremely determined detective, and after the fashion of a dog with a bone, he won’t let go. He won’t stop until he gets his man. Reminiscent of Michael Connelly’s iconic detective Harry Bosch character, if it means sacrificing his job or any hope of a stable personal life, so be it. Hole detests corruption and inequality.
Something was wrong.
At first the female passport official had beamed: “How are ya, mate?”
I picked up a copy of The Bat from the bargain shelves of a Books A Million store while on vacation in 2019. The book caught my eye because while I knew nothing about Harry Hole, I had heard a little about Jo Nesbø. I knew he was Norwegian and wrote Scandinavian noir crime fiction books. I hadn’t read a synopsis of the book but was aware The Bat was the first book in a series.
Reading the first few pages, I was thinking along the same lines as the book’s first sentence. Something was wrong. Having visited Australia a few times, the greeting by the passport official sounded familiar. But I was sure Norwegians weren’t in the habit of saying, “How are ya, mate?” When you pick up a Scandinavian noir novel written by a Norwegian author, you automatically assume the setting will be somewhere in Scandinavia. But things started to make sense as I read further.
The Bat begins in the most non-Nordic location imaginable, with Harry Hole arriving in Sydney, Australia. He’s there at the request of the Australian police who are investigating the murder of Norwegian TV presenter and minor TV celebrity, 23-year-old Inger Holter. The Australian authorities had recovered her body from the sea after someone had beaten and raped her. The Australian police don’t actually want Hole’s help investigating the case. They are only hopeful that having a Norwegian police officer around will allay Norwegian tourists’ fears so that the valuable Scandinavian tourism won’t dry up with all the negative press.
Harry, haunted by past personal and professional troubles, teams up with a bluff, friendly homicide cop of Aboriginal descent, Andrew Kensington. Working with Kensington, welcome or not, Hole wades right into the investigation, making both friends and enemies in the Bohemian quarter of Sydney where Inger worked. He and Kensington chase down some leads that take them into the Outback looking for a drug dealer, and we get a fascinating view of the Aboriginal experience from a most unexpected source. Along the way of working out Inger’s death is the work of a serial killer, Hole finds time to begin a new relationship with another Scandinavian ex-pat, Swedish barmaid Birgitta Enquist.
Harry’s fish-out-of-water experience in a foreign land and the odd-couple pairing with a mismatched partner makes for pleasurable reading all the way to the end.
Since the book was translated into English in England, American readers may find the prose a bit awkward in spots. Still, it isn’t enough of a distraction to take anything away from Nesbø’s confident and masterful storytelling style. While I categorize the book as a police procedural, one might argue it is every bit a thriller.
For those crime fiction fans who love to match wits with the detective and try to beat him to the crime’s solution, there are plenty of twists to keep you guessing. The Bat is a worthy introduction to Scandinavian noir for the uninitiated, even if this first Harry Hole novel is set in Australia. Nesbø’s writing and his character Harry Hole impressed me enough that I binge-read the next ten books in the series and waited impatiently to get my hands on the twelfth book when it came out in 2019.
The Bat is available as an electronic book, in print, and as an audiobook.
Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Published: Original edition 1997; English edition July 2, 2013
Pages: 384 pages
Other Books in the Series
The Redbreast (2000)
The Devil’s Star (2003)
The Redeemer (2005)
The Snowman (2007)
The Leopard (2009)
The Thirst (2017)