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Headhunters (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) Paperback – September 6, 2011
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Anyone who is interested in Nordic thrillers should read this book. Anyone who enjoys mysteries, capers, Norway, psychology, the Coen Brothers, twists or fine writing. READ THIS NOW! I can't believe not everyone gave it five stars. I am a pretty jaded reviewer .. well, no, not really. I still get giddy over mysteries, science fiction, the odd literary novel, children's books, movies, recipes, etc. I feel like a lucky person to be around for all the great arts there are available at the click of a button. And if I had to rank my favorite authors across all genres, Jo Nesbo would be in my top five.
This is a thrilling story written in a distinctive and intriguing narrative voice, with great dialogue, complex characters, incredible situations and superb plotting. There is even wit and a little wisdom thrown in. This is like three novels, actually. We start with the story of Roger Brown, corporate headhunter who's also an art thief; later he becomes Roger Brown, hunted man; and finally we get Roger Brown, avenging cipher.
This is a great book. (And BTW, the movie is also very good and captures the book very well.) Nesbo is a magnificent writer and strategist. If you like the Harry Hole books, you will like this too.
While the first person narrative contains the usual Nesbo flair for thrilling plots populated by ghastly villains and miscellaneous others who exit and enter, the characters in Headhunters failed to leave an impression. Part of the reason for this, I think, is because from the outset, they are quite superficial. The lead character and POV of the novel, headhunter and part-time art thief, Roger Brown, is a narcissistic prat (and unattractive - in the psychological and emotional sense - anti-hero) who boasts about not only the way he can read people, but practically every other element of his life: his outstanding reputation in his main gig as a corporate headhunter, his grasp of FBI interrogation techniques and perfection of them, his beautiful art-gallery owner wife, his hair, his manner of dress etc. etc. While he tries to suggest he is comfortable with his relatively short stature, there is also a sense in which he does protest too much and the reader cannot help but think that Roger works hard to overcompensate. This is something that, in many ways, holds true when he meets the more than capable former executive and soldier Clas Greve, and decides he might be a suitable candidate for a top job. But when Roger learns that this man also owns an original Rubens, the cocky Roger decides to risk another job on the side; only, he ends up risking more than he ever bargained for and a deadly cat and mouse game, a head-hunting of a different and very final kind, ensues.
As mentioned above, I didn't like any of the characters in this book. While I wondered if this was social commentary on Nesbo's part, a sort of satire about how shallow and egotistic we've become, and the reader wasn't meant to like anyone, I am now, on reflection, not so sure. After all, in Nesbo's later books - the Hole ones - one of the great strengths is the marvellous shades of grey in which characters are painted, revealing the rich canvas of what passes for morality and how even ethics have a context. In Headhunters, no such complexity exists and rather than a three-dimensional picture of human foibles and choices, we are given a very superficial portrayal indeed.
Furthermore, the plot was clichéd in parts, too far-fetched in others (the scene in the outdoor toilet was just silly) and above all, predictable. Mind you, that didn't mean I wanted to stop reading, Nesbo is a very good storyteller after all. It just meant I didn't really care. I didn't care who lived, who died or what the outcome was. I didn't invest. That made me feel a little sad.
Reading that Hollywood is making a film out of this book surprised me. It's not that original - I would have thought the Hole stories would have offered much more complex fare - maybe that's the rub. Still, it's not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination and made for a quick summer read. It's just not the Nesbo I have come to admire and look forward to so much.
By focusing on these characters, however, Nesbo frees himself from the limitations of the police procedural and can take his story in new directions, omitting the law entirely from almost all of the action, and creating a plot in which Roger Brown and his enemies play a game in which the "king of the chessboard" is the person who survives. Roger Brown has a side business, set up so cleverly that none of the other participants know who else is involved, a business which handsomely supplements his business income. As he interviews clients, Roger gains important personal information, including their artistic tastes and the nature of their investments in art. Then he cleverly arranges to have that artwork stolen from their homes and fenced. No one ever suspects him.
When he interviews a Dutch candidate for a major position in a corporation that makes sophisticated GPS devices, including some so tiny that they can be hidden in gels, he discovers that Clas Greve is his job candidate from hell, pushing back and eventually seizing the initiative. Soon every aspect of Roger's life is threatened, and no holds are barred. To go into much more detail would risk giving spoilers, but Nesbo is at his outrageous best here, allowing himself free rein to create a taut mystery with darkly hilarious complications which never stop coming, and coming, and coming. Creative killings and near misses inspire the reader to keep trying to figure out who is involved and how, but as soon as one "knows" how some betrayal took place, Nesbo twists the plot to show that the reader is wrong - yet again.
Adding to the pure fun and zany excitement are scenes which also evoke the reader's sympathies. Talented young executive Jeremias Lander, whose interview opens the novel, is manipulated by Roger Brown, illustrating some of the techniques headhunters use to guarantee that their candidates are ready for the jobs they want, even if they have to wait a while to get them. Roger's wife Diana, who once had an abortion that she didn't want, evokes sympathy as she deals constantly with the emotional aftereffects. Lotte, a "timid whelp, small and scruffy with fearful, brown puppy eyes," is used and discarded. Still, Nesbo's focus remains primarily on the plot and its twists, and his deadpan descriptions of outrageous (and truly unforgettable) scenes will keep readers smirking throughout, even as they are saying "E-e-w-w-w."
Note: All the proceeds from this novel will go to the Harry Hole Foundation, promoting literacy in the Third World. Already sold and developed as a film, this is the first Nesbo novel to hit the screen.
Nemesis: A Novel (Harry Hole)
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Roger Brown, the main character, is not likable, and the female characters are not...Read more