Winter is here, well past my summer resolution to read the Harry Hole series. I’ve had The Redbreast read and noted for a while, but hadn’t gathered the notes together. So, here we are, better late than never. Harry Hole #2, aka Cockroaches, still isn’t out in my country until next year. I’ll be coming back to it. For now, enjoy my thoughts on Redbreast! Spoilers abound for those who haven’t read the book.
Summary of The Redbreast (Originally titled Rødstrupe):
Back in Oslo, Harry Hole is trying to do good police work and stay out of trouble. You know, replacing drinking with exercise, trying to pass his shooting test, etc. He is nearly successful closing his case against Sverre Olson, an active Neo-Nazi, but the guilty ruling is overturned on a procedural technicality. He also accidentally shoots a Secret Service agent when the American President comes to Oslo to mediate a trade agreement. These two errors are actually the beginning of an extended investigation that pits Harry against the growing Neo-Nazi movement in Oslo. His particular focus is on an older assassin who fought with the Nazis for Norway in WWII. The trail uncovers a vast arms-dealing network affiliated with Oslo’s Neo-Nazis. However, Harry can only take on one thing at a time, especially when his partner Ellen Gjelten is killed partway through the investigation.
Title Track: The word “redbreast” refers to a few things in the novel. First, there’s an epigraph that explains how the robin got his color: that in an act of compassion, the bird removed a thorn from Christ’s brow and was stained as a result. Not only does this set up the religious imagery that pops up in the book, but refers to Harry’s own empathy with the criminals he pursues. In this book, this empathy culminates in Harry sparing Uriah-Sindre-Daniel-Gudbrand. Unlike in “The Bat,” “Redbreast” is a slang term that directly describes Gudbrand’s weapon skill: slitting throats swiftly as “the most human method” for dispatching enemies. Finally, Ellen loves birds and talks to Harry about the “calculated risk” of flying south for the winter or waiting it out.
The Modus Operandi: With the interlocking plots, there are quite a few. U-S-D-G’s goal is to revenge himself on those who have wronged or abandoned him in his past: the royal family for not acknowledging the Norwegians who allied with the SS, Signe and Hallgrim Dale for their unfaithfulness to the cause, Brandhaug for blackmailing his daughter Rakel. Sverre Olson’s crimes are meant to further “the Cause” & be a good soldier. Tom Waaler’s goals further his ambitions in the police department and his place in the Neo-Nazi group. Basically, the Neo-Nazis are operating on an “Either you’re with us or against us” agenda.
Bond Girl: Rakel Fauke, the Cochineal (see Snowman), Harry’s new true love, who can get Harry to do anything if she laughs. She’s a divorceé escaped from a destructive marriage to a powerful, alcoholic Russian. Despite this history, she’s irresistibly attracted to Harry & gets to know him at one of his worst times–during the death of Ellen, his partner. She’s also caught in the same position as her mother once was, where a powerful man who lusts after her threatens the man she loves if she doesn’t submit to his sexual advances. Surprisingly, she also knows about Harry’s drunk-driving accident; she saw the crime scene on the way home. However, she doesn’t reveal whether she knows the fault was Harry’s.
Ghosts Past and Present: As mentioned above, Ronny Stiansen’s death is mentioned unwittingly by Rakel. Harry shaves his head to keep from being recognized as “the Bruce Willis-type from Australia.” While traveling, Harry suddenly has a fear of flying and overhears a train commuter’s Walkman playing a song he’s “heard many times before; he just couldn’t remember where.” Sverre Olson’s street name is “Batman” because his favorite weapon for assault and murder is a baseball bat. And those are just for the past entries of the series. Ellen’s death is a driving force for at least the next two books. Rakel relives her mother Helena’s love triangle, culminating in a wet dream for Harry that is directly about Rakel, recalls Helena’s first night with U-S-D-G, and triples as intuition granting enlightenment. Then, of course, you have Norway’s difficult past returning in the form of Gudbrand Johansen, who takes on the memories and identities of his unit & is determined to make Norway recognize their contribution to WWII.
A Scar is a Tattoo with a Better Story: Surprisingly, Harry doesn’t come away with any notable physical scars. Good job!
Mr. Self-Destruct: Harry relapses twice in Redbreast–once after the accidental shooting of the Secret Service man (who was left paralyzed), once after Ellen is killed. However, while difficult, the relapses are not the monumental fuck-ups that marks Harry’s awful downward spirals. Some of this could be Ellen’s residual influence, who we learn pieced Harry back together after the events of Cockroaches. Also, Rakel is in the picture, giving him an incentive. His “hounds” torment him when he goes dry and he tries to pick a fight to get a message to “the Prince.” Overall, Harry is in a better place than usual.
Someone’s Been Sleeping In My Bed: Harry’s apartment is the Spartan orderly copy of Andrew Kensington’s in Batman, mainly because he is fighting off his alcoholism. Harry only gets ads in the mail, he has little on his walls except for a poster and pictures of his Mom & Søs. Ellen’s bird Helge stays briefly with Harry as well.
History Lessons: The whole spine of the story relies on Norway’s involvement in WWII, the current rise of Neo-Nazis & black-market arms dealing. Reading Redbreast in a post-Anders Breivik world is eerie.
Epic References!: One word: Prince. Tom Waaler, resident sociopath & local department Neo-Nazi loves Prince. How much can a white supremacist love Prince, you ask. His codename in the arms dealing organization is “the Prince.” Beside that, one of the few decorations in Harry’s apartment is a poster for The Godfather that he stole from a theater when he was 16. While working out at the gym, Harry mentally argues with Shania Twain as she sings “That Don’t Impress Me Much!” Harry & Rakel bond over Raga Rockers; Harry and Oleg have a Tetris competition that lasts the entire series. Again, no a-ha references.
The Don’t-Miss-Social-Events: Harry’s promotion party (seriously, he gets promoted after wounding the Secret Service agent to cover-up the mistake), the department Christmas party, Norwegian Independence Day.
Cool Story, Bro: For those having difficulty following U-S-D-G’s plot (which is understandable, he’s very confused himself), his memoir takes up the last chapters & explains everything. Also, André Brockhard’s crude tale about horse-training fails to intimidate Helena when the horse subsequently bucks and shies away at the end.
Takeaway Philosophy: “Despite everything, he feels a need to be understood. Most people do, you know.” (pg. 403)