So, apparently my count is off and this is book 12 of the Harry Hole series. Reading most of the reviews, only one gave away the major plot point (there's always one major murder to be solved or serial killer to be caught), even though the jacket blurb gives away the major plot once you know what it is, so, yeah, skipping that detail.
So, uh, I'll say, there's a murder, Harry is a suspect, he's cleared, he goes to track down the murderer.
What is terribly brilliant about the book is how so many details from previous books, some returning characters, and some half-answered questions all cascade into this one's plot. The pieces all fit together, leaving the reader to go, "Huh."
And the actual murderer?
Did. Not. See. That. Coming.
As much as I disliked the first book that I read in the series (which I read out of order), I really like these last few Harry Hole books. I'm unsure if the book could be read stand-alone, tbh. That said, if you're a fan, of course read this one, HF read this one. If you're not a fan, become one, start at book one, The Bat.
Harry had seen it in other cases, the way that someone left behind struggled with grief as if it were an enemy, an irritating nuisance that needed to be cajoled and tricked. And one way of doing that was to downplay the loss, to discredit the dead.
But happiness is like heroin; once you’ve tasted it, once you’ve found out that happiness exists, you will never be entirely happy with an ordinary life without happiness again. Because happiness is something more than mere satisfaction. Happiness isn’t natural. Happiness is a trembling, exceptional state; seconds, minutes, days that you know simply can’t last. And sorrow at its absence doesn’t come afterwards, but at the same time. Because with happiness comes the terrible insight that nothing can be the same again, that you are already missing what you have, you’re worrying about the withdrawal pangs, grief at the loss, cursing the awareness of what you are capable of feeling.
“I don’t know yet.”
“But…” Oleg didn’t get any further, and Harry knew there was no continuation to that all-encompassing “but.” It was just an instinctive objection, a self-sustaining protest, a rejection of the possibility that things could be the way they actually were. An echo of his own “but…” in Katrine Bratt’s office twenty-five minutes ago.
Investigation, he thought. This is an investigation. I’m dreaming, but I can do an investigation in my sleep. It’s just a matter of doing it properly, getting it going, and I won’t wake up. As long as I’m not awake, it isn’t true.
So Harry did it properly, he didn’t look directly at the sun, at the body he knew was lying on the floor between the kitchen and living-room areas. The sun—that, even if it hadn’t been Rakel—would blind him if he stared straight at it. The sight of a body does something to your senses even if you’re an experienced murder detective; it overwhelms them to a greater or lesser extent, numbs them and makes them less sensitive to other, less violent impressions, all the small details of a crime scene that can tell you something.
“Do you know, you’re showing all the classic signs of PTSD?”
Harry stared at her. “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” Kaja said.
“I know what it is.”
“Great. But do you know what the symptoms are?”
Harry shrugged his shoulders. “Repeated experience of the trauma. Dreams, flashbacks. Limited emotional response. You become a zombie. You feel like a zombie, an outsider on happy pills, flat and with no desire to live any longer than necessary. The world feels unreal, your sensation of time changes. As a defense mechanism you fragment the trauma, only remember specific details, but keep them apart so the whole experience and context remain in the dark.”
Kaja nodded. “Don’t forget hyperactivity. Anxiety, depression. Irritability and aggressiveness. Problems sleeping. How come you know so much about it?”
“Our resident psychologist has talked me through it.”
“Ståle Aune? And he thought you didn’t have PTSD?”
“Well, he didn’t rule it out. But on the other hand, I’ve had those symptoms since I was a teenager.”
Life as a dance performed by mayflies. You stand in a room full of testosterone and perfume, moving your feet in time to the music and smiling at the prettiest one because you think she’s meant for you. Until you ask her to dance and she says no and looks over your shoulder at the other guy, the guy who isn’t you. Then, once you’ve patched up your broken heart, you adjust your expectations and ask the next prettiest to dance. Then the third. Until you get to the one who says yes.
And if you’re lucky, and you dance well together, you ask her for the next dance as well. And the next. Until the evening is over and you ask if she wants to spend eternity with you.
“Yes, darling, but we’re mayflies,” she says, and dies.
She hated those “influential women” gatherings anyway. Not because she didn’t support the cause, not because she didn’t think that true equality was something worth fighting for, but because she couldn’t summon up the forced sisterly solidarity and emotional rhetoric. Occasionally she felt like telling them to shut up and stick to asking for equal opportunities and equal pay for equal work. Sure, a change was long overdue, and not only when it came to direct sexual harassment, but also the indirect and often intangible sexual-control tactics men used. But that mustn’t be allowed to rise to the top of the agenda and draw attention away from what equality was really about. Women would only harm themselves yet again if they prioritised hurt feelings over the size of their pay packets. Because only better wages, more economic power, would make them invulnerable.
Harry felt a different type of rage hit him. The cold sort, the sort that made him calm. And crazy. Which he had feared might come, and which mustn’t be allowed to take over.
Krohn sometimes wondered what would happen when the oil ran out and the Norwegian people had to face up to the demands of the real world again. The optimist in him said things would be fine, that people adapt to new situations quicker than you think, you just had to look at countries that had been at war. The realist in him said that in a country without any tradition of innovation and advanced thinking, there would be a slippery slope straight back to where Norway had come from: the bottom division of European economies.
One of the reasons why he had never raised the subject was probably that he knew there were few things as unsexy as an insecure and chronically jealous partner.
“According to Professor Paul Mattiuzzi, most murderers fit into one of eight categories,” Harry said. “One: chronically aggressive individuals. People with poor impulse control who get easily frustrated, who resent authority, who convince themselves that violence is a legitimate response, and who deep down enjoy finding a way to express their anger. This is the type where you can see it coming.”
Harry put a cigarette between his lips.
“Two: controlled hostility. People who rarely give in to anger, who are emotionally rigid and appear polite and serious. They abide by rules and see themselves as upholders of justice. They can be kind in a way that people take advantage of. They’re simmering pressure cookers where you can’t see anything coming until they explode. The sort where the neighbours say he always seemed such a nice guy.” Harry sparked his lighter, held it to his cigarette and inhaled.
“Three: the resentful. People who feel that others walk all over them, that they never get what they deserve, that it’s other people’s fault that they haven’t succeeded in life. They bear grudges, especially against people who have criticised or reprimanded them. They assume the role of victim, they’re psychologically impotent, and when they resort to violence because they can’t find other ways to control their violence, it’s usually directed towards people they hold grudges against. Four: the traumatised.”
Harry blew smoke from his mouth and nose. “The murder is a response to a single assault on the killer’s identity that is so offensive and unbearable that it strips them of all sense of personal power. The murder is necessary if they are to protect the essence of the trauma victim’s existence or masculinity. If you’re aware of the circumstances, this type of murder can usually be both foreseen and prevented.” Harry held the cigarette between the second knuckles of his index and middle fingers as he stood reflected in the small, half-dried-up puddle framed by brown earth and grey gravel.
“Then there are the rest. Five: obsessive and immature narcissists. Six: paranoid and jealous individuals on the verge of insanity. Seven: people well past the verge of insanity.” Harry put the cigarette back between his lips and looked up. Let his eyes slide across the timber building. The crime scene. The morning sun was glinting off the windows. Nothing about the house looked different, just the degree of abandonment. [...]
“And the eighth category?” Kaja asked, wrapping her coat more tightly around her and stamping on the gravel.
“Professor Mattiuzzi calls them the ‘just plain bad and angry.’ Which is a combination of the seven others.”
So who killed R---? Someone with personality traits from one of those categories killing without any context, or a normal person killing for a reason they’ve come up with themselves?”
“Well, I think that even a crazy person needs some sort of context. Even in outbursts of rage there’s a moment when we manage to convince ourselves that we’re acting in a justifiable way. Madness is a lonely dialogue where we give ourselves the answers we want. And we’ve all had that conversation.”
Not obviously beautiful, but cute, Harry decided. Possibly what Øystein would call a Toyota: not the boys’ first choice when they were teenagers, but the one that stayed in the best shape as the years passed.
“I was jealous.”
“I hated her.”
“She hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“That was probably why.” Kaja laughed. “You left me because of her, that’s all the reason a woman needs to hate someone, Harry.”
“I didn’t leave you, Kaja. You and I were two people with broken hearts who were able to comfort each other for a while. And when I left Oslo, I was running away from both of you.”
“But you said you loved her. And when you came back to Oslo the second time, it was because of her, not me.”
“It was because of Oleg, he was in trouble. But yes, I always loved Rakel.”
“Even when she didn’t want you?”
“Especially when she didn’t want me. That seems to be how we’re made, doesn’t it?”
“Love’s complicated,” she said, curling up closer and laying her head on his chest.
“Love’s the root of everything,” Harry said. “Good and bad. Good and evil.”
Success, the good life, age, they all made even the angriest of people more conciliatory. The way they had with Harry, making him milder, kinder. Almost sociable. Happily tamed by a woman he loved in a marriage that worked. Not perfect. Well, fuck it, as perfect as anyone could bear.
That was ten hours ago now, and his brain had spent those hours frantically searching for an answer, for a way out, for alternatives to the only explanation he could think of, skittering hither and thither like a rat below deck on a sinking ship, finding nothing but closed doors and dead ends as the water rose higher and higher towards the ceiling. And that half of his heart was beating faster and faster, as if it knew what was coming. Knew it was going to have to speed up if it was going to have time to use up the two billion heartbeats the average human life was made up of. Because he had woken up now. Had woken up, and was going to die.
During the course of some of those investigations, Ståle Aune had guided Harry through the most common motives for suicide. From the infantile—revenge on the world, now-you’ll-be-sorry—through self-loathing, shame, pain, guilt, loss, all the way to the “small” motive—people who saw suicide as a comfort, a consolation. Who weren’t seeking an escape route, but just liked knowing it was there, the way a lot of people live in big cities because they offer everything from opera to strip clubs that they never think of making use of. Something to fend off the claustrophobia of being alive, of living. But then, in an unbalanced moment, prompted by drink, pills, romantic or financial problems, they take a decision, as heedless of the consequences as having another drink or punching a bartender, because the consolation thought has become the only thought.
Madsen’s experience told him that what he was engaged in, trauma-based cognitive therapy, helped. It wasn’t the acute crisis therapy that had been so popular until research showed that it didn’t work at all, but long-term treatment in which the client worked through the trauma and gradually learned to tackle and live with their physical responses. Because believing that there was a quick fix, that you could heal those wounds overnight, was naive and, at worst, dangerous.
“Free. I felt free. Killing someone was like crossing some sort of border. You think there’s a fence, some sort of wall, but when you cross it you realise that it’s just a line someone’s drawn on a map.
“I crucified him so he could take on my suffering, the way we did with Jesus. Because Jesus didn’t put himself on the cross, we hung him up there, that’s the whole point. We achieved salvation and eternal life by killing Jesus. God couldn’t do much, God didn’t sacrifice his son. If it’s true that God gave us free will, then we killed Jesus against God’s will. And the day we realise that, that we defied God’s will, that’s the day we set ourselves free, Madsen. And then everything can happen.”
It was madness. It was what it was. He had called her from an unknown number. She had answered and not been able to hang up. And now, as if she had been hypnotised and had no will of her own, she was doing as he had instructed, the man who had used and deceived her. How was that possible? She had no answer to that. Just that she must have had something in her that she didn’t know was there. A cruel, animalistic urge. Well, it was what it was. She was a bad person, as bad as him, and now she was letting him drag her down with him.
“She liked that,” Harry said. “Listening to us talk.”
“Did she?” Oleg looked off to the north.
“She used to bring the book she was reading, or her knitting, and sit down near us. She didn’t bother to interrupt or join in the conversation, she didn’t even bother to listen to what we were talking about. She said she just liked the sound. She said it was the sound of the men in her life.”
“I liked that sound too,” Oleg said, pulling the fishing rod towards him so that the tip bowed respectfully towards the surface of the water. “You and Mum. After I’d gone to bed I used to open the door just so I could listen to you. You used to talk quietly, and it sounded like you’d already said pretty much everything, understood each other. That all that needed adding was the occasional key word here or there. Even so, you used to make her laugh. It was such a safe sound, the best sound to fall asleep to.”
Thought back to the time he used to row while his grandfather sat in front of him, smiling and giving Harry little bits of advice. How he should use his upper body and straighten his arms, row with his stomach, not his biceps. That he should take it gently, never stress, find a rhythm, that a boat gliding evenly through the water moves faster even with less energy. That he should feel with his buttocks to make sure he was sitting in the middle of the bench. That it was all about balance. That he shouldn’t look at the oars, but keep his eyes on the wake, that the signs of what had already happened showed you where you were heading. But, his grandfather had said, they told you surprisingly little about what was going to happen. That was determined by the next stroke of the oars. His grandfather took out his pocket watch and said that when we get back on shore, we look back on our journey as a continuous line from the point of departure to the point of arrival. A story, with a purpose and a direction. We remember it as if it were here, and nowhere but here, that we intended the boat to meet the shoreline, he said. But the point of arrival and the intended destination were two different things. Not that one was necessarily better than the other. We get to where we get to, and it can be a consolation to believe that was where we wanted to get to, or at least were on our way towards the whole time. But our fallible memories are like a kind mother telling us how clever we are, that our strokes with the oar were clean and fitted into the story as a logical, intentional part. The idea that we may have gone off course, that we no longer know where we are or where we are going, that life is a chaotic mess of clumsy, fumbled oar strokes, is so unappealing that we prefer to rewrite the story in hindsight. That’s why people who appear to have been successful and are asked to talk about it often say it was the dream—the only one—they’d had since they were little, to succeed in whatever it was that they had been successful in. It is probably honestly meant. They have probably just forgotten about all the other dreams, the ones that weren’t nurtured, that faded and disappeared. Who knows, perhaps we would acknowledge the meaningless chaos of coincidences that make up our lives if—instead of writing autobiographies—we had written down our predictions for life, how we thought our lives would turn out. We could forget all about them, then take them out later on to see what we had really dreamed about.