Originally published in 2009 in Norwegian and 2011 in English, The Leopard (or Panserhjerte) is the eighth novel to feature Harry Hole, the formidable detective with a host of demons. Hole is the quintessential sleuth: intelligent, good at his job, tenacious, but with a dark side signified by his drinking, drug taking, and womanising. He is renown both within the Oslo crime squad and in the media for his unorthodox methods but he always catches the killer. I’ve heard very mixed reviews of Jo Nesbø’s writing over the last few years as some people find his plots overly formulaic but I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Following on from The Snowman and the case that essentially broke Hole, The Leopard begins in Hong Kong, where he is involved with the triads, is throwing away his money on opium and gambling, and is drinking himself into oblivion. Young detective Kaja Solness has been sent to retrieve Hole to bring him back to Norway, where his father is dying. Although Hole is reluctant to return, he recognises that Oslo is his true home; he experiences “a huge unalloyed pleasure at being here. In Oslo. Home.” Hole is also reluctant to offer his help in solving the latest string of murders in Oslo but he cannot help himself and soon becomes involved.
What follows is an intricate plot that takes Hole to Africa, Australia, and back to Norway to solve a case that involves a number of gruesome murders. The only thing that seems to connect all of the victims is that they were all in the same remote cabin near Ustaoset in the Norwegian mountains on the same night. The killer, nicknamed Prince Charming because of the way the female victims are treated, tortures the victims before they die by using a Leopold’s Apple, a device that results in the victims drowning in their own blood. In a nod to The Silence of the Lambs, Hole enlists the help of The Snowman, the killer from the previous novel to help find Prince Charming. The killer’s perspective is narrated through short passages written in first person but their identity is never easy to ascertain.
The novel uses the quintessential tropes of the police procedural: a detective that is a loose cannon, a wider group of detectives that are trying to rein him in but know how good he is, a serial killer that is picking their victims off one by one, and a tense, well-paced plot that always keeps us guessing. It also features the stereotypical romance between a male and a female partner. Yet, as a Scandi-noir, the book is inherently dark and gritty, what the subgenre has become known for, and its setting in Oslo is justified. The icy terrain of the location is paralleled by the coldness of the killer but also the coldness of the detectives investigating the case. The book also details the power struggle within the crime squad itself and the Kripos or the National Criminal Investigation Service (Den nasjonale enhet for bekjempelse av organisert og annen alvorlig kriminalitet in Norwegian). A special agency of the Norwegian Police Service, Kripos’ head Mikael Bellman is determined to seize control of the investigation of every murder in the country. As a result, Harry must work beyond the law as his former department is embroiled in a turf war.
At over 600 pages, The Leopard may seem slightly overwhelming at first but Nesbø’s writing is incredibly easy to read and he knows how to maintain suspense throughout. The book masterfully balances plot with character development so the reader never feels that the book is slowing down. Overall it’s an incredibly fast-paced book that is intricately plotted. And, although the shocks are often sensationalist, they are always entertaining.
Nesbø not only gives us a cracking good read that is filled with tension and charged relationships, but detailed character studies of highly complex individuals. Hole could be said to be one of the most conflicted characters I’ve read for a long time, with his moral drive to catch the killer and to protect the city he holds dear to him, but also an inherently self-destructive personality.
About the author
Jo Nesbø is one of the world’s bestselling crime writers, with The Leopard, Phantom, Police, The Son and his latest Harry Hole novel, The Thirst, all topping the Sunday Times bestseller charts. He’s an international number one bestseller and his books are published in 50 languages, selling over 33 million copies around the world.