A THOUGHTLESS HIT IN THE SNOW
In the 30s pulps, there was a subgenre of detective fiction known as the defective detective. They followed the normal pulp detective stories: get scammed by the molls, plugged and sapped by the gangsters, maybe solve the crime, maybe note, always with a pithy comment. But these stories had something about them. They were defective. Maybe they were blind. Maybe they had a limp. Maybe they had narcolepsy. Whatever the case, they weren’t 100% normal. It’s a paradigm you don’t really see too much anymore. It does seem kind of a one trick pony, not something, or someone, you would revisit. And the norms of society have changed. Just as the casual racism of Raymond Chandler and others has disappeared from the pages of mysteries, so too has the circus freak ambience of those who are different have largely disappeared from the fiction world. Even the detective world. There are no defective detectives out there. Certainly there are fractured ones. Diseased ones. Hurting ones. Even vampire ones. But the physical defect has largely given way to the normal.
However, that not entirely the case in the mystery subgenre of hitmen. Where series hitmen like Quarry from Max Allan Collins is the picture of normalcy in the mad world he inhabits, there are those who work the defect angle into their hitman stories. Several years ago, Jonathan Lethem ran that with his MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and his Tourette syndrome hitman. And in 2015, we see the Norwegian Jo Nesbø use the same trope in his newest book, BLOOD ON SNOW which follows the dyslexic hitman Olav
Olav is your typical LES MISÉRABLES obsessed hitman who has not actually read the book, and therefore has made up his own inexact version of the tale, with crimes more grandiose, a love more pure. At least in his estimation. Nesbø sets up his unreliable narrator in a straightforward fashion, so that the reader can slowly, slowly, see the true madness behind the façade. Thematically, Nesbø owes much to Jim Thompson and his glint-eyed grifters and cons and glad-handing sheriffs with their hints of madness that finally explode into full blown insanity. Sadly, either Nesbø, or Neil Smith, his translator, don’t have the grasp on this that Thompson does. Whereas the dual narration of A HELL OF A WOMAN sticks in the reader’s craw year after year after reading, the denouement of BLOOD ON SNOW is a muted whisper where an explosion is called for. Indeed, the whimper of tan ending, played out with an unsubtle, almost clinical, existential angst is the crucial failing of Nesbø’s book. I could have lived with the defective hitman trope, the almost infantile view of the world attached to Olav, but there is not enough there to make the intellectual leap Nesbø begs of here. The push beyond the pulpy origins of the hitman in over his head, the attempt at an almost Camus-ian epiphany, is not effective. The bare, sparse language betrays an attempt at depth.
Do we blame Icarus for aiming high? Or do we simply remember that he burned up? At least with this volume, we only seem to remember the burning pyre.