BOOK REVIEW – The Son by Jo Nesbo – June 2023

Reviewed By Jane Tompkins

The Son is a complex, violent, psychologically and philosophically acute novel, in which the plotting is so demanding and, frequently, difficult to follow, that more than once I was tempted to stop reading. Normally I review books that make me feel good at some level and teach me something as well. At first I thought that The Son fell into a separate category, that of sheer virtuosity. It’s no accident that it was chosen for the Black Lizard Vintage Crime Collection, which includes classics such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Rima Walker, who wrote Gazette reviews for many years and is a Jo Nesbo expert, told me that Nesbo’s first novel was short, simple, and straightforward and that his books grew gradually longer and more complicated as he mastered the genre. The Son, first published in 2014, is not his latest, but a novel more tortuous, complex, and challenging to read is hard to conjure. It is also, as I learned, a rather profound book.

It concerns a series of murders that take place after one of the two protagonists, a mysterious young man named Sonny Lofthus, escapes from prison. This Buddha-like being whom other prisoners would confess to and seek forgiveness from, is on a mission to avenge the death of his father, a prominent member of the Oslo police, who allegedly committed suicide but was probably murdered. Sonny comes to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Simon Kefas—the other protagonist—a likeable older fellow whose years of experience have made him a genius at interpreting crime scenes, whose business it is to solve these murders. Coincidentally, he was the elder Lofthus’s best friend. From this point on the plot unfolds in a series of incidents that only gradually come to make sense.

One’s pleasure in reading the book comes from following the tangled threads of the action, trying not to lose track of earlier scenes as later ones are piggy-backed onto them, attempting to remember, and then to string together, names, places, and events in hopes of grasping the overall picture. The understanding is often partial and blurry and sometimes doesn’t arrive at all.  But, and here’s the key, the will to persist, to stay the course and not give up until the picture gets clear keeps one going until finally things are resolved. tly. The plot twists so often and so quickly near the end that I’m not sure I got everything straight.

Sound like torture? Yes, sort of. But you could call it effort, effort producing the satisfaction of exercising one’s brain by catching the clues Nesbo drops, glimpsing connections you thought might be there and then learning that they are there, and feeling clever for having done so. It’s a puzzle-solver’s sort of book (I’m a Sodoku, crosswords, and anagrams addict), but there’s more to it than that.  The “more” consists mainly of the characters Nesbo brings to life: the mysterious Sonny, a murderer who is kind, sensitive, and in some way holy, who gives heartfelt thanks to cleaners and streetcar conductors and falls in love with a woman who spends her life caring for drug addicts; and Simon, the former gambler and hardworking detective who patiently mentors a self-centered rookie and sacrifices his honor to save his beloved wife from going blind. I couldn’t help becoming fond of them, rooting for them, even though I knew I didn’t fully grasp who they were. Nesbo’s imagination in creating such compelling figures produces in the reader the energy and desire needed to endure the intricate machinations of the plot.

There’s yet one more layer; it lies in the moral and spiritual nature of the world Nesbo creates. For the truth is, while Nesbo’s characters can be almost infinitely compassionate, pure of heart, fearless, loyal, and generous, they can also—the same people—be desperate, corrupt, mendacious, and weak. The contradictoriness of this picture is the essence of his take on existence. It’s not an in-between, middle of the road, compromise-is-best sort of philosophy. On the contrary, it’s a mind-bending, terrifying, simultaneous-entertaining-of-extremes-position, a position impossible to hold, except that he does. At this level, Nesbo may be seen not as an exceptionally skilled crime writer, but as someone who writes crime fiction because only this sort of material can convey the horrifying scope of his vision. It comes not from a logically based, law and order, justice must prevail mentality, but from a mystical perception of truth grounded in the grim and awe-inspiring details of lived life.

I’m glad I kept on reading.~