So next up on the Solve-along list is Jo Nesbø’s The Devil’s Star. I’ve chosen this for a few reasons: I want a variety of stuff, not just Golden Age Mysteries; my friend lent it to me specifically because he wanted to know if I could guess what happened; I feel I should read more Scandinavian fiction after throwing my copy of The Girl Who Played With Fire out the window for crimes against sanity; but mainly I just love any excuse to use the letter ø!
As before, I’ll start with my preconceptions. I don’t know much about it, although the blurb, title and cover all suggest there are going to be mutilations and pentagrams galore. So I’m not expecting it to be a laugh riot (at least not intentionally).
[Spoilers for The Devil’s Star, of course, but nothing else.]
There’s a map! Maps and diagrams don’t get me quite as aroused as they do for a lot of mystery fans, but it’s a map of Oslo and I’m up for any excuse to fiddle about with googlemaps. All the roads seem to be in the right place, although there are a whole lot missing. That sparseness and the hand-drawn style makes Oslo look more like St Mary Mead than it probably should, although only if St Mary Mead had awesome road names like Ullevålsveien. The title makes me think I should be pulling out my compasses and setquare to look for patterns, but there’s no obvious pentagons in the roads, and I can’t be bothered to see if any of these buildings match up.
Chapter 1 is called “Friday. Egg.” which is…. cryptic. Still I’m sure it will all become clear. Here we go…!
A not very well built 19th Century house has some leakage problems. Woo! Actually it’s more exciting than that, because the water is just an excuse to segue rather clunkily into dreadful things that happened in the past. It’s your usual stuff: man bricks wife in cellar; wife tries to gnaw her way out; wife dies, probably out of shock that her great ‘chew through walls’ plan failed; wife transforms into a pig-headed (and we’re not talking stubborn!) ghost-beast who feeds on children’s blood. I hope she comes back later on! I love it when ‘serious’ thrillers do the Scooby Doo thing.
Oh, but now it’s the present and a disgruntled wife is cooking for her equally disgruntled husband when they notice something dripping from the upstairs flat into their frying pan. It tastes like egg (hence the chapter title) but of course it’s blood. Dun dun dun.
The writing is a bit weird. The translator has either been given too much leeway or not nearly enough. There’s some really odd punctuation (“On the ground floor there was a shop selling ‘monuments’, as the sign said, in other words, headstones.”) some stuff that might sound cool in Norwegian but sound naff in English (“She was what most people would call dead.”) and some things which feel like outright mistakes (“Vibeke, who was a little short-sighted, wouldn’t have seen the drops if they had glistened. But they did not.)
Which seems like a lot of things to be tripped up by in the first ten huge-print pages. But I’m happy to believe it’s a translation thing. Everyone’s totally hot for Scandinavian mystery fiction right now, so publishers must be rushing out as many English translations as they can.
Chapters 2 – 5
Nesbø’s gone for the Dan Brown approach of titchy chapters so I’ll just write stuff down if it seems pertinent. Not much has happened. The blood is from Camilla Loen, twenty-something resident of the attic flat. She’s been shot, had her index finger lopped off, and now has a lovely star-shaped gem embedded under her eyelid. The usual bullshit forensics is wheeled out, just to show that the case can’t be solved then and there. The neighbours might be suspects, or they might never get mentioned again. But since the husband seems suspicious I’ll accuse the wife for now. (How’s that for backwards mystery-logic?)
We’re introduced to the main character, Harry Hole. Maybe that’s a great name in Norwegian but in English it sounds like a Shakespearean obscenity. There seems to be a lot of back story about dead colleagues, sisters and crooked police. Especially Tom Waaler, who seems to be Harry’s nemesis and of course has been assigned to work with him on this case. Harry has evidence that Tom is super-evil, but because he doesn’t trust anyone else on the force he’s done the sensible thing and kept it to himself whilst becoming a raging alcoholic. Oh actually he does seem to have told his boss, but since he’s not shown him the evidence and since Tom is young, smart and super buff, boss-man just thinks our hero’s got a stick up his harryhole.
Here’s something. A little page of the killer’s thoughts. Not much useful stuff, except some indications (herrings?) that it’s a woman, and that she’s giving Harry a good ol’ stalk. Oh and she thinks in italics, or course, which has long been the typeface of choice for psychos who interrupt the narrative.
Mystery-wise there’s not much to go on yet. But the gender thing is worth thinking about. Usually if there’s a strong indication of the killer’s gender then you’re firmly in herring country, especially now that authors think that sex-changes take two minutes, can be done in secret, and mean your face changes completely so no-one will recognise you’re back for revenge. (God, imagine what sort of Murder in Mesopotamia-style nonsense there’s bound to be lurking in a rubbish thriller somewhere.) This episode of Lewis is maybe the ur-example, since it’s both extremely stupid and extremely obvious, but at the same time the tone suggests the makers thought it was subtle, edgy and intelligent.
[I love Lewis, but I really don’t know why. I generally dislike lazy misrepresentations of academia – especially Oxbridge – unless they have the decency to be silly/light-hearted. But Lewis, like Morse, is completely po-faced about everything, presumably in the hope that this will cover up how unbelievable everything is. I like Hathaway, but hate the fact that he both seems to be able to quote everything ever written in English (I know a lot of English graduates and voracious readers but none of them has ever dropped a quotation into a conversation, ever) and, which is perhaps worse, seems to think that said quotations are relevant and useful. I’m not even using it as Morse methadone – I think Morse has all the same problems as Lewis but is ten times as dull. I think maybe I just love Clare Holman and Rebecca Front.]
Anyway back to the book (I guess it’s not a good sign that my mind is wandering). Actually, thinking about it, there are a few indications so far that the killer’s a woman. The pig-ghost back in chapter one was a woman. The italics have a few maternal hints like “being hounded by those you nourished”. But it’s hard to tell if those are genuine clues or the groundwork for a rug-pull. If it was John Dickson Carr then I’d say definitely the latter, because Carr expected you to be constantly reading between the lines and tried to stay one step ahead. But nowadays? I mean in the episode of Lewis I mentioned they actually made up some science so the pathologist could basically say outright, “It’s a bloke. Definitely. We scienced it and everything.” So this is definitely on the subtle side. And the lady victim was found almost naked in the shower, and male is still the default gender for sex-murderers (damn you, patriarchy!) so perhaps we’re supposed to think it’s a man and I’ve stumbled onto some real hints.
The jury’s out.
Hmm. Lady neighbour shops in Harry’s supermarket. And she’s being mighty flirtatious. She’s definitely a prime suspect. If I had to guess the ending now, I’d go with her husband being the surprise main suspect and it turning out to be her. This seems like the sort of story where anyone the detective falls for either gets murdered or turns out to be evil. (More shades of Lewis! That man’s got the kiss of death!)
In police news, Harry’s been fired, and for good reason. He’s the worst policeman.
Oh it’s Part 2 already. That was quick. I hope I’m not going to have to sympathise with Harry just because I know he’s the hero and so is contractually obliged to get the answer by the end.
Chapters 8 – 12
A journalist is introduced, although maybe he’s a series regular. That’s the trouble with picking up a series in the middle: as well as having to wade through all the baffling recap stuff, you’re at a disadvantage over the suspects.
Harry’s back at work. Turns out the Chief Superintendent went on his three-week holiday without signing the dismissal papers. Do I smell an arbitrary deadline? Oh dear, the rules say Harry can work but he has to turn in his gun. And he’s not allowed to work on the murder. But that’s obviously not going to be a problem because we know from the back of the book that we’re in serial killer country, so Harry can just stumble onto one of the other corpses…
Well that was quick. The very next page he’s on a “missing person case”.
There’s a little interlude where a woman is saying good-bye to a man who’s about to fly to Oslo. She suspects him of being unfaithful. She also has one of the star-shaped diamonds. Neighbour-lady’s husband was always away on business. My theory is looking stronger, because now Nesbø can explicitly demonstrate that the husband doesn’t have an alibi for the murders whilst implicitly showing that the wife doesn’t either.
Oh neighbour-lady has bumped into Harry in the pub. And in passing she’s mentioned her husband being away. I’m almost ready to lock in my solution…
So just after I wrote that she brought up a lot of really incriminating stuff. So now he’s far too suspicious, which makes me think that she is too. Or maybe I’m overthinking this. I’m so used to the complexity of Golden Age Mysteries that I’m maybe making this more complicated than it has to be. So we’ll stick with the theory. But less jubilantly.
Oh the missing second lady’s finger has just turned up in the mail. No actual body, though. So I’ll be keeping her in the back of my mind as well.
And that’s the end of part 2…
One thing that’s struck me is in comparison with Cat of Many Tails. That was also a serial killer plot, but I went about solving it in a totally different way. There I focused on he motive. Here I’m not even considering it at all. One thing is that I trust older mysteries to be fairer, and also to have more clues. But there’s another thing, something that’s specific to serial killer plots. In a Golden Age Mystery with a serial killer theme, I would always assume that the motive wasn’t to carry out serial killings at all, that the murderer was perfectly sane and had a very good reason for wanting one (or more) of the victims out of the way. That actually turned out to be wrong last week, but there was at least a half-hearted stab at a reasonable psychological explanation which fit the known facts. I expect modern mysteries about serial killers to…. well, just have serial killers in them. Here, I’m expecting the motive to be “I dunnit cuz I’m plumb kerrrrrrrazy!!” possibly with some childhood trauma thrown in. I hope I’m wrong, but there has been such a proliferation of serial killer plots in the past twenty years that the need for a plausible motive has basically vanished.
Another snippet from the killer’s POV. It looks like I really am supposed to be able to find a star in the map from the beginning? But no matter how much I squint I still can’t find one.
Hmm. The chapter ended with another one. But this one strongly suggests that we should be looking for an ‘Invisible Man’ type of killer. (That’s my least favourite sort of story, by the way. I don’t even like the Father Brown original.) But no-one in the plot so far really fits the bill.
So a rethink. If it isn’t one of the characters mentioned so far then it’s a builder or a decorator. That would fit the invisible man theme and there’s been a fair few mentions of building work/plastering tools/renovation throughout the book so far.
Chapters 14 – 25
Another killing, this time in a ladies’ toilet. So now we’re back to theory one. The victim says, “actually you’re in the ladies’ lavatory,” which strongly suggests a man. Especially since we know she’s gone in there to fetch a glass of water for a man. But she’s only responding to a voice, and it doesn’t say it’s the man’s voice. So, by mystery thinking, a woman is strongly indicated. So I’m back to the neighbour. But maybe with the additional feature that she’s disguised herself as a workman or a decorator.
Or a courier. Because the man who wanted the glass of water remembers seeing one of those.
Oh. And I remember now that Harry noticed she had especially broad shoulders back when he first interviewed her. That’s a nice clue, if I’m right. (But then she presumably also has breasts, which makes the courier disguise problematic.)
A fourth killing. A young lady who lodges with an old one (an old lady, I mean, she doesn’t flat-share with Cthulhu) and who was silly enough to recently acquire a perfect new boyfriend (always a mistake in serial killer plots).
Oh wait, it was just a trick. She’s fine. But I don’t imagine they’ll both be alive at the end of the book. I’m not sure about ‘fake’ scenes like that one. It’s all very well to trick the reader, but that’s a bit like playing ominous music in a tv show when someone isn’t really evil. I’d avoid it unless there’s absolutely no other way to make the mystery work. And that doesn’t seem like the case here. It just seemed like a bit of throwaway tension.
Harry goes back to the first crime scene and finds a pentagram. The neighbours come in to see what’s going on, and the husband reveals that he’s suspiciously knowledgeable about pentagrams, Christianity etc. etc. All the things that make you a good red herring. Mrs Neighbour is there but doesn’t say anything. She also seems surprised by her husband’s behaviour. All the things that make you a good murderer.
Gah. I suppose I’d better learn their names. Mr Neighbour is called Anders and Mrs Neighbour is called Vibeke. Much simpler!
Hmm. In other news, Harry’s nemesis is descended from the guy who built the leaky house from the story way back in chapter one. Not sure where that thread’s going…
Another interlude with the nameless man and woman. The woman found the man’s gun, and now he seems to have shot her. But probably not, because I’m not ready to chuck my theory out yet.
The rest is just investigation stuff. Some utter bullshit about codebreaking, after which Harry uses sleeping pills to activate his subconscious to enter a trance state and blurbledy burbledy bleurg… After a whole heap of nonsense he reveals that the answer is… five. If that’s all there is too it then Jo Nesbø might be a front runner for the annual “Code That’s As Stupid As The One In Deception Point” award. It’s very prestigious!
More importantly, he discovers that overlaying the pentagram onto the map on page one will tell the police where the next killings will be. So I was right, but not very good at looking. My rubbish excuse is that I got confused about where the third murder happened. Anyway, the other two murders are supposed to be at the old lady’s house and a student dorm.
So now there’s a lot of faffing about setting up security measures which are clearly going to be inadequate. This is what’s known as “middle section quagmire”, where only a complete genre virgin could fail to be ahead of the plot, but the plot has to happen anyway to give a semblance of realism.
Vibeke runs into Harry again to bring part 3 to a close.
Despite all the snarky comments, I don’t hate this story. But it really doesn’t need to be this long… There’s a fair bit of wonky translating, but some of it is definitely Jo’s fault. I don’t see how Harry’s recovery from alcoholism would be any better in Norwegian. The gist would be the same. It’s not that it’s unconvincing – it’s just not very interesting.
Chapters 26 – 31
Hmm. The old lady (from the trick ‘murder’ earlier, the one who lives at one of the pentagram points) has a son, Sven, who also fits the bill as a too-obvious suspect. In fact, reading on a bit reveals that he’s almost definitely the mystery man from the interludes with the nameless man and woman. No-one has seen him yet. Is he really Anders? There’s no reason why not, and the detective recognising people in old photos on old lady’s dressers is a favourite revelation technique in slight;y rubbish mysteries.
Double hmm. The bike courier has turned up at the student dorm with a gun and is definitely a man. He’s just shot a student, but somehow Harry and his team have missed him.
Oh. It turns out that parts of that chapter were set three weeks in the past. Well that’s a dirty trick, even worse than the fake murder from part 2. I really don’t see what reaction an author expects when they do stuff like that other than a sigh. And now it creates all sorts of problems, because, although I’m 99% sure it’s a one-off, I can’t trust whether anything is in chronological order. I don’t think Nesbø really thought the ramifications of that through.
Anyhow, plotwise it means that the murder in the dorm was actually the first one. So the old lady’s house is last. I’ve half a mind to suspect the old lady and her son are in it together, but I’m still a bit miffed by the chapter with the dumb time switch trick so I’ll think about it later.
Now Sven has turned up at his mother’s house and been arrested by Tom, Harry’s nemesis. Sven isn’t talking and now Tom has told Harry that Sven has to be murdered in the name of justice in order for Harry to join the secret crooked police gang that’s been a bit of a subplot. Harry’s a bit upset about this, but there’s no way he’s going to actually do it. And that’s the end of part 4.
So. Where do were stand? Sven obviously isn’t the serial killer, because there are still almost two hundred pages left. Tom wants Sven dead, but that’s presumably because he was in charge of smuggling the diamonds and doesn’t want Sven squealing, not because he’s the murderer. If he is the murderer it’ll be something to do with his great-grandfather and the buildings, but I don’t really see what that could be.
Sven presumably isn’t Anders, or someone would have recognised that by now. So that’s that theory squashed.
So since all the clues seem to point to Sven, presumably someone wants to frame him. But who? Tom does, but it can’t be him because if it was he would have shot him when he had the chance. His mother might (?!), but if she’s been passing herself off as a young male bike courier then The Devil’s Star will be following The Girl Who Played With Fire out the window!
Vibeke has been my prime suspect from the beginning, but this most recent murder really seems to let her out of it.
So who’s left? Anders, or Wilhelm, the husband of the second victim. Who is conceivably still alive herself, but she’s a beautiful and shapely actress who’s missing a finger so she’s also going to have difficulty pulling off the courier deception. There’s been a whole My Fair Lady subplot with Wilhelm which hasn’t seemed worth mentioning until now because it hasn’t been going anywhere. But maybe I should have been paying more attention to it. There’s a lot of thematic stuff you can do with Pygmalion, some of it enjoyably grisly, but this book is already stuffed with different half-realised themes and it’s going to be a miracle if they all get pulled together in the end.
I’m going to reluctantly plump for Anders, but I won’t be too upset if it’s the other guy.
Chapters 35 – 39
Final Part. There’s a lot of pages left but maybe not as many as Nesbø’s going to need to wrap everything up satisfactorily.
So Harry pretends to kill Sven but it’s a trick. In fact he’s kidnapped him and they’re on the run. They had back to the student block where the first murder happened, both because it’s a good place to hide and because Jo Nesbø needs somewhere with a lift for the overforeshadowed climax (Harry is afraid of lifts, you see. Heroes in thrillers are allotted one phobia per book, provided they promise to confront them at the end.)
Then there’s a fair bit of faffing and dealing with the not very interesting subplot with Harry’s nemesis, but that soon wraps up and Harry has his “A-ha!” moment while looking at a photo of Sven in Wenceslas Square in Prague.
Chapters 40 – 41
Well it was Wilhelm, the husband of the second victim, who I was suspicious of because her body hadn’t turned up. But she really is dead. And how! He killed her, cut off her finger and then put her in his waterbed, so that the dogs wouldn’t be able to sniff out her body and so that he could continue to shag her corpse through the lining. (So I was right to notice the Pygmalion theme, although I’m not sure G.B.Shaw would approve). Then, naturally, he pleasured himself by sticking the severed finger up his arse before posting it to the police! He did it because his wife and Sven were having an affair. And also because he’s nuts.
I can definitely say I wasn’t expecting any of that, although I think I hit all the general points at one time or another in my run-through.
Chapters 42 – 44
Well that’s the mystery cleared up. As expected, the rest is just a slightly silly lift-based climax with Harry’s nemesis, who happened to kidnap Harry’s girlfriend’s son a few chapters back. But the son gets saved, the nemesis gets thoroughly squished, Harry gets his job and his girlfriend back and magically gets over his alcohol problem. Hooray!
Well. I think this might need more thought and space than I’m able to give it in this article. I’ll do a follow-up about the solution and what I think does and doesn’t work when I’ve had more time to process it. I guess the simple way of looking at things is that Nesbø fooled me. I wasn’t exactly surprised by the identity of the killer, but I was basically flailing around at the end and didn’t have a solid theory to go on. I was guessing, really. And I certainly didn’t pick up on any of the other stuff – the waterbed, the severed finger, the photo, the motive.
Partly that was because I underestimated Nesbø. I saw aimless waffling and unsubtle hinting where I should have seen careful clueing and clever manipulation. Nesbø did a good job of directing my suspicions, and was restrained enough to not refer back to all of these clues later in the plot. (Some authors can’t resist pointing every last one of their clues and red-herrings. I think if you’re going to do that – and sometimes it is interesting – then it really belongs in an appendix like the cluefinder from Obelists Fly High).
But on the other hand it was very loose and underclued. I don’t think it was exactly unfair, but I think it could have been presented in a much more satisfying way. Since I’m going to do a follow up I won’t get into too many details, but I’ve only been finished for ten minutes or so and I can already think of a ton of plot holes. I doubt it will seem any more consistent tomorrow. And some of the best clues, like the fennel seed in the shit on the severed finger (yes it’s gross, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be clever) aren’t even mentioned until a few pages before the reveal. It’s almost as if Nesbø was afraid to tip his hand too soon, but I think that information could have been presented quite openly without fear of giving the game away. It’s so wacky and grim that most readers won’t be dwelling on it too much. Besides, I think it’s far better to be a bit too obvious than to withhold information for so long that you risk the reader being dissatisfied.
The largest problem is really in the presentation of the ritual aspects of the killings. Wilhelm’s (and by extension Nesbø’s) plan is to conceal a crime of jealousy under the trappings of religious fanaticism. But Nesbø was trying to juggle so many plot strands that he forgot to actually dedicate any time to the ritualistic nature of the murders. There’s none of the sort of atmosphere building you’d associate with that kind of plot. Sure, there are a few sections where Harry goes to a church (although he barely discusses the case there) and there are some very brief discussions about the meaning of the inverted pentagram; but these are incredibly subdued, and their impact hardly radiates throughout the book. There’s probably more stuff about technology, stagecraft or even lifts that there is about Satanism. The police investigation hardly touches on this aspect of the case, and even the expository dump by the expert on serial killers fails to mention it. In fact the only part of the book that does any real heavy lifting in this department is the title. But I think you’d have to be extraordinarily suggestible to let the natural implications of the title and the blurb colour your reading of the whole book. And it really is just those two things. Other editions have a pentagram on the front but the one I read has the cover from the beginning of this post. It’s certainly dilapidated, but it doesn’t exactly scream “Satan” at you. (And let me be the first to cast my vote for a bookcover that does exactly that! Publishers have to compete with ebooks somehow…)
It’s the old “show don’t tell” problem, albeit in an unusual form. All the writing manuals urge you that showing is far better technique than telling – and with good reason – but it only works if you’re actually showing what you think you are. Telling might be clumsy, but at least the reader can’t disagree with what they’ve been told. I think a certain amount is necessary in mysteries like this to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
The presentation of the solution suggests that Nesbø thinks the first three-quarters of his plot were dripping with religious and ritualistic overtones, but actually he barely mentioned them. Combining this with some very meagre clueing meant that the solution almost felt like it was for a different sort of book. I was surprised by the solution, but probably not for the right reasons. Which is a shame, because there were some really good ideas in there.
Basically, I think this needed to be redrafted. There were far too many themes competing for attention, and far too much padding. But I get the impression that isn’t unusual in modern thrillers and I enjoyed it more than I was exasperated by it. I doubt I’ll read another one in the series, though.