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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Snowman

Jo Nesbø

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To purchase The Snowman

Title: The Snowman
Author: Jo Nesbø
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 384 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Snowman - US
The Snowman - UK
The Snowman - Canada
Le bonhomme de neige - France
Schneemann - Deutschland
L'uomo di neve - Italia
  • Norwegian title: Snømannen
  • Translated by Don Bartlett
  • The Snowman was made into a film in 2017, directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Michael Fassbender, Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer, and Charlotte Gainsbourg

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit unfocussed, but has some decent twists

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 20/3/2010 Laura Wilson
The Independent . 5/3/2010 Barry Forshaw
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/5/2011 Marilyn Stasio
The Times A 6/3/2010 Marcel Berlins
Die Welt . 27/12/2008 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "There's a strong, pacey narrative with plenty of gruesome discoveries -- never have carrots and lumps of coal been put to such sinister use -- and a well-deployed cast of suspects. Deft plotting, strong characterisation, adrenaline-fuelled action sequences and a whole raft of social issues raised along the way make this book a spectacularly good example of how a tried and tested (and often tired) formula can be made exhilarating and fresh." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "That he is able to combine the urgency of the best storytellers with a keen and intelligent engagement with social issues may well be the reason why Nesbø is shaping up to be the next big name in Scandinavian crime fiction (.....) The Snowman is certainly the most disturbing of Nesbø's books, with a spine-chilling quality that evokes the English master of the macabre, MR James." - Barry Forshaw, The Independent

  • "In his zeal to import mad-dog serial killers to the peaceable kingdom of his native Norway, Jo Nesbo is compelled to devise some pretty outlandish schemes to occupy Inspector Harry Hole" - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "His tormented Oslo cop Harry Hole is on brilliant form, which means that he goes on alcoholic binges, is uncaringly insubordinate, breaks most rules of police investigation and thinks morosely of Rakel, the woman with whom living together and living apart have proved equally unsuccessful. (...) This is crime writing of the highest order, in which the characters are as strong as the story, where an atmosphere of evil permeates, and the tension begins in the first chapter and never lets up." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "Beinahe sympathisiert man mit dem Täter, so nachvollziehbar arrangiert der norwegische Schriftsteller dessen Motive." - Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Snowman begins with a short scene from the past, in November 1980 -- a scene that is later described again, from a different perspective and with an important blank filled in (and where the scene doesn't end as abruptly -- or at least not as soon .... --, which makes a big difference). A snowman figures there, and snowmen continue to figure throughout the novel, not as benign winter fun but rather really creepy and ominous warning figures -- and more (though Nesbø does toss in one or another harmless one, to good comic effect).
       Norway has never had a serial killer, so the police are reluctant even to consider that a few disappearances and deaths in 2004 are the work of one. Harry Hole, of course, begs to differ -- but then Hole is the one policeman who has experience with a serial killer, as the case that made him famous -- recounted in a (and arguably the defining) volume in this series that, sigh, the US and UK publishers couldn't be bothered to publish yet -- had him chase one down in Australia years earlier. Of course, Hole's credibility on this subject-matter has taken a few hits too:

     "Whoa there. Hold your horses !" Skarre raised his palms. "How many times have you cried wolf since you became a celeb because of the Aussie stuff, Harry ?"
       Nevertheless, it looks like this time (after, apparently, three previous false alarms) Hole is onto something: a serial killer appears to be on the loose, and snowmen appear to be his calling card. And even if Hole doesn't get all the resources he'd like for a full-scale investigation ... well, he's Harry Hole, super-cop (or at least super-obsessed cop -- as someone close to him says: "You are your job, and what drives you isn't love or a sense of responsibility. It's not even personal ambition. It's anger. And the desire for revenge."). And while former sidekick Beate Lønn -- and her useful fusiform gylus (allowing her to recognize and recall every face she's ever seen) -- only make a cameo appearance in this volume, there's a new girl on the job that he can work with, Katrine Bratt. Super-competent as well, she of course turns out to be a bit too good to be true, coming with quite a bit of her own baggage. Quite a bit .....
       It's because of this unusual criminal -- 'the Snowman', as they call him -- that this isn't your usual murder investigation, either: as Harry understands, "In a nutshell, this is a different kind of game." And it is, in part, evidently a game, as Harry suspects that he is being manipulated and led on:
I just have a feeling that someone is watching me the whole time, that someone is watching me now. I'm part of someone's plan.
       As far as the investigation goes, Hole and his gang also always seem to be just half a step behind -- on the right trail, but coming up just short. Indeed, more than once they think they have (or at least identified) the person responsible, only to find that the pieces don't quite add up.
       The twist -- the whodunnit, and the why (and the who's next ...) -- are quite satisfying, but Nesbø's presentation gives an odd feel to the book. In essence, the story -- like the brief opening episode -- is told twice: once following all the false leads and once revealing what really happened. It's okay -- there's a nice overlap, as the second go-round -- the explanation -- allows us to see much of what happened in a different light, and the identity and reasoning of the perpetrator are certainly entirely satisfying. But in its fits and starts -- especially the repeated cycle of now-we-have-him/oops-we-don't -- the narrative undermines its own suspense. A few over-the-top 'action' scenes (including the penultimate and most dramatic confrontation (not to mention the simply silly finale)) also don't help, the sensationalism feeling rather forced (or rather: conceived entirely for their cinematic potential).
       The Snowman is a solid thriller, but feels somewhat underdeveloped: the many false trails would have more of an impact if they were more fully developed. Exacerbated by the American publisher's incomprehensible decision to publish the book out of sequence (see below), there's also a sense of discontinuity to the novel: there's character-development throughout the Hole-series, but it's rather thin here, and unanchored by the previous installment(s) in the series Hole feels even less whole than usual here: his affection for the boy for whom he is a father-figure is reasonably well conveyed, but everything else -- his drinking, his tastes in music, his love-life -- gets short shrift. Meanwhile, an intriguing (if too good to be true) new figure like Katrine Bratt is burned through entirely too quickly.
       The Snowman is an entertaining thriller, but it works better as part of the series than as a stand-alone -- and is certainly a confusing (and rather thin) place to start in on Harry Hole for readers unfamiliar with the character.

       [Note: that The Snowman is being published in the United States (May, 2011) before the previous installment in the series, The Redeemer (which is to be published in the US in 2012). [The Snowman is the seventh Harry Hole novel; volumes three, four, and five have been published in the US and the UK, and volume six -- The Redeemer -- has also already been published in the UK.] For anyone who has read the previous installments and is in any way invested in the series, this is extremely annoying as, among other things, the action in The Redeemer affects the status of at least two of Hole's professional colleagues (i.e. their roles and situations have changed drastically between the last time we saw them -- in The Devil's Star -- and here); Hole's personal life has also undergone some changes. This discontinuity isn't fatal to the book, but it sure doesn't help; it is also extremely irritating (as is the fact that the first two volumes in the series are still entirely unavailable in English); complaints to the publisher (Alfred A. Knopf) may not do any good (they -- like most commercial American publishers nowadays -- obviously live in their own la-la land of what they (and surely no one else) considers best publishing practices) but are certainly encouraged.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 May 2011

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The Snowman: Reviews: The Snowman - the film: Jo Nesbø: Other books by Jo Nesbø under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Jo Nesbø was born in 1960.

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© 2011-2023 the complete review

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