- - Thursday, May 14, 2015



By Jo Nesbo

Knopf, $23.95, 226 pages

A professional hit man is a challenging topic for a crime writer, especially one as steeped in gore as Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Yet the most intriguing kind of hit man usually possesses a cold charm perhaps as a result of a way of life that involves killing on contract.

The man called Olav writes in words as frozen as snow flakes. In his world it always seems to be snowing. “The dry windswept snow was settling around the shoes of the man I had just shot in the chest and neck. All I knew was that the man would soon be dead. It was nothing personal.” He notes that according to the local paper it was going to be the coldest winter ever in Oslo. The bloodied snow reminds him of a king’s robe, purple and ermine, because of the shape of the snow flakes and the hemoglobin that retained the deep red color.

This is what Olav thinks as he turns away from his latest victim and goes to report to his boss that the job had been done and now he would like to be paid. He has little reaction when Hoffman says he has another job for him. Killing seems to be all that Olav is good at. He admits, however, that there are things he can’t do — such as drive a getaway car — because he is not able to drive inconspicuously. He recalls how he was once stopped by police who acknowledged there was nothing illegal about his driving, but they just didn’t like the way he was driving. He also can’t be involved in robberies because once when he robbed a bank, he felt so guilty about an elderly employee being upset that he went to visit him in the hospital. He likewise doesn’t get involved in prostitution or drugs. “I have a sensitive nature,” he explains, and recalls lingering anger over a sadistic father’s frequent beatings. He doesn’t get involved in prostitution because he falls in love too easily. But he has a weak spot for Maria, a deaf and dumb girl whom he rescued from a bully to whom she owed money.

When Olav is told by Hoffman what his next job will be, it spoils his day. It is Hoffman’s wife that he must kill, and he is uncomfortable with this “fix” because he is being offered five times as much money than usual, and he just doesn’t trust his boss. Hoffman is deeply involved in the heroin trade and his equally shifty partner is a man called “The Fisherman.” Olav does not outright refuse to kill the woman, but he chooses to go about it in his own way — starting with spying on her from a hotel room that he has rented across from the Hoffmans’ Oslo apartment. What he sees is Corina Hoffman, who is a beautiful woman, being visited daily by a thin young man who beats her before raping her. The suspense of this vivid and gripping tale is heightened by who the thin young man turns out to be. Although Hoffman is not happy with Olav’s freelance killing, there is more in store for him when Corina begins an affair with the hired hit man and urges him to run away with her.

The plot becomes steeped in blood at this point, and there are scenes of heads being chopped off and bodies leaping from coffins, and Olav surviving it all. He is shrewd enough to borrow a bulletproof vest, which saves him from death when he makes a last request of a man poised to shoot him in the face. Blood, gore and heart-thumping spectacle drive the narrative along its way.

In the meantime, it goes on snowing and when Olav isn’t killing, he takes a moment to meditate on the beauty of snow, which he describes as “dancing like cotton wool in the light of the street lamps, letting itself be driven by the hellish ice cold wind sweeping in from the great darkness covering the fjord.”

Olav’s relationship with Corina is next under the spotlight, and I won’t reveal its trajectory here. Suffice it to say that corpses accumulate in this chilly tale, and revelations surface from unlikely corners.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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