As usual with a Nesbo book, I devoured Cockroaches as soon as it arrived in the post. That was before Christmas. Now most of my friends and fellow Nesbo addicts have also finished it so the debates over its merits have come thick and fast over the last two weeks.
Some, and it is entirely their right, have opined that it is an initial, low standard, offering. Maybe theyhave some justice as it doesn’t compare entirely with the likes of Police which had me twisting and turning throughout in bemused excitement. However, I do feel that all books and judgments are relative, so to argue that Cockroaches is not as good as the later works is trite, and no justification for damning it entirely, or even at all.
My big question about Cockroaches, as with The Bat, is why it has taken Harvill Secker over 15 years to publish the first two Harry Hole books. It seems incomprehensible given the success Jo Nesbo has achieved over the last 10 years. Did the publishers feel they were substandard? Did Jo feel they wouldn’t stand comparison with the later works? When I read The Bat last year I saw it as a more than acceptable starting point for fans of the taciturn Harry, though coming to terms with the Australian context after years of viewing him as part of the Nordic landscape was more difficult. Somehow Harry and sunshine don’t mix too well. But there was no evidence from the Nesbo website that the book had been extensively rewritten or updated. And if it was the raw 1990s version I didn’t see it as requiring any major reworking. And I feel exactly the same with Cockroaches.
As for the book itself, it opens with Harry, as always, at odds with his superiors. He wants more time to find out who raped his sister. They want him to get on with the other cases. One of the other cases is the murder in Bangkok of the Norwegian ambassador which the diplomatic service is anxious to keep the lid on. Reluctantly, Harry is wafted across to Thailand to investigate the death of the diplomat having been promised that he would be given time to investigates Sis’ rape on his return. No prizes for guessing that the diplomat’s death threatens to open a nasty case of peculiarly Thai worms. Despite a marriage to a Nordic beauty and a 15 year old daughter there are doubts about his sexual orientation. Those doubts date back to his youthful friendship with Norway’s new Conservative Prime Minister and largely explain why someone with little in the way of diplomatic experience has been banished to Thailand and the diplomatic service. In apparent contradiction of such doubts, the ambassador has been murdered in a downmarket hotel room while supposedly awaiting the arrival of a prostitute (Thai and female). Ok still, paying attention because the waters are going to get a lot more muddy. Paedophiliac images are found in the ambassador’s possession, and it also turns out he has huge gambling debts he owes to the local moneylenders who’s methods of ensuring repayment are much more imaginative than any of the sanctions available to the likes of Wonga. Ironically, the ambassador’s death also raises questions about who will inherit his share of the family fortune which are compounded when Harry finds out the wife has terminal cancer. Naturally there are motives a plenty for the ambassadors murder and a rather long list of suspects who stand to benefit from his demise.
The investigation begins slowly with Harry doing his best to assimilate into the Bangkok police’s ways of doing investigations and trying his best not to upset the lead investigator, Elizabeth Dorothea Crumley the six foot something daughter of an American serviceman and his Thai girlfriend who is bald, due to a childhood bout of alopecia, as well as a capacity to be a tad feisty. Diplomatic pressures to solve the crime as quickly, and as diplomatically, as possible become combined in Harry’s mind, and in reality, with suspicions that everyone in Norway would be overjoyed if Harry cocked it all up and had to be shipped back to Oslo in disgrace.
And that is all you’re getting from me. I mean it fully, when I advise you to enjoy Cockroaches for yourselves, and come to your own judgments. Some of it may disappoint you, but I would certainly lay some good odds that you will appreciate the many twists and turns in the final chapters before you, and Harry, figure out who killed the ambassador and why. Quite honestly, if it was my first book I wouldn’t feel any great need to spend much time apologising for it. One final aside. After alienating Arsenal fans for his symbolic use of their shirt in the Oslo drug industry Jo will no doubt piss off Man Utd fans in spades for his association of their shirt with paedophilea in Cockroaches. Poor souls, my heart bleeds for them.
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