In Jo Nesbø's The Thirst, Detective Harry Hole Tracks a Twisted Killer

Books Reviews Jo Nesbø
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In Jo Nesbø's <i>The Thirst</i>, Detective Harry Hole Tracks a Twisted Killer

In The Thirst, detective Harry Hole—the unconventional, alcoholic, insubordinate, intuitive genius who’s battled sadistic murderers for 20 years—tangles with the killer who just might be the one who got away.

Though Hole himself would rather stay put in his post-retirement gig as a police academy lecturer, readers can rejoice that one of the most iconic protagonists of modern crime fiction is back on the beat. Credit the endlessly inventive Norwegian author Jo Nesbø for once again concocting a serial killer who outmatches the rest of the Oslo police, necessitating Hole’s reluctant and potentially self-destructive return to the force.

Nesbø’s last two books, the stand-alone novellas Blood on Snow and Midnight Sun, were told from criminals’ perspectives, proving a convincing shift to the hired killers’ ruthless mindset. Propulsive thrillers in their own right, those books serve as appetizing excursions—a way to whet readers’ desire for Hole’s return.

The Thirst opens in Oslo, a city traumatized by a twisted and elusive killer who targets unsuspecting Tinder dates. Nesbø deploys the fashionable dating app as not only a potential trap for victims, but as a means to explore the psychological need for human connection—a theme that remains an undercurrent throughout the novel.

The killer, whose demonic tattoo represents the unspeakable urges within him, may—or may not—be driven by vampirism. Either way, the ritualistic blood drinking that accompanies the murders creates a media sensation around the case and casts an urgent spotlight on the police, from Hole up the chain of command to his old rival.

In his 11th book featuring Hole, Nesbø deepens the already-complex portrait of his antihero. Hole has collected a career’s worth of monsters who continue to haunt his dreams, even after he’s left the day-to-day investigative work behind. But even the relative contentment of retirement has brought new anxiety to Hole’s life. Having at long last acquired what he wanted—love and a serene existence he’d willingly repeat daily for the rest of his life—Hole now fears losing it.

Hole is simply terrified of his own happiness.

“Happiness was like moving on thin ice,” he observes. “It was better to crack the ice and swim in cold water and freeze and struggle to get out than simply wait until you plunged into it.”

Wading into dark and deranged territory, Nesbø creates a fine balance between action and tension, with surprises lurking in unexpected corners that provide an edgy and visceral read. He’s a master of structure, style and no-pages-wasted plotting. But Nesbø’s greatest strength as a novelist is the way he places two opposing forces in battle: the perverse criminal and the compulsive detective. In Nesbø’s consistently excellent Hole series, The Thirst may well be the pinnacle.

Eric Swedlund writes about music, books, science, travel, food and drink. He lives in Tucson.