Jo Nesbo, The Bat and Terra Nullius

For both Harry Hole and Craig Gisto, the protagonists of Norwegian Jo Nesbo and American James Patterson’s crime novels set in Australia, it all begins in the international arrivals hall of Sydney airport where so many first impressions are formed.

While Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-leh in Norwegian but mispronounced Holy by every Australian he meets), is greeted with a cheery ‘How are ya mate’ by a fiercely egalitarian female passport official, Gisto is there to meet a ‘beautiful’ American woman in his Ferrari 458 Spider which he drives out of the airport and onto the ‘sun-drenched freeway’ to the city. This is about as much local colour as we get in Private Oz, presumably courtesy of co-author Michael White, former UK popstar and now Australian resident.

Bar the street addresses, Private Oz is a book which could be set anywhere in the fantasy world of private detectives driving fast cars, underworld crime, vicious Triad gangs and a crazed serial killer targeting ‘yummy mummys’.

The Bat was Nesbo’s first crime novel, the character of Harry Hole apparently conceived during the long-haul flight to Australia. On arrival, Nesbo did some exploring and then bunkered down in a hotel room, writing a frenetic 18 hours a day accompanied by a volume of indigenous myths and legends discovered in the museum bookshop.

The result was Flaggermusmannen (literally The Batman) first published in 1997 which won a number of awards, including the Scandinavian Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year. It’s therefore just a tad puzzling why it has taken so long for The Bat to be translated into English. Perhaps the publishers didn’t want to take a punt on an Australian setting for a Scandinavian crime novel? And it is all about the setting.

Nesbo describes Australia with the clear-sighted precision of the jet-lagged tourist for whom everything is both strange and disorienting. Hole is in Australia to investigate the death of a young Norwegian woman who has been found raped and strangled at The Gap. His guide is an indigenous detective called Andrew who takes the precaution of wearing a suit before steering Harry towards lunch at Doyle’s on Watson’s Bay where he begins to educate Harry on the politics of race in Australia. As Andrew tells him: ‘If you’re aboriginal the chances of ending up in prison are twenty-six times greater than for any other Australian. Chew on that, Harry Holy’.

Chew on it Harry does, as he encounters other indigenous characters, all of whom regale him with their myths, including that of the Narahdarn, the Bat, the aboriginal symbol of death. Harry’s steep learning curve continues as he encounters the concept of Terra Nullius on a journey which will take him from the red lamps and black mascara of Kings Cross into the flamboyant drag scene that is Oxford Street and back to the future that is Nimbin by way of the agricultural showgrounds of Lithgow and Jim Chivers travelling boxing troupe.

What we also get, and which will be of interest to those who have followed the subsequent adventures of Harry Hole, is more about Harry’s backstory: his always doomed love affairs, and the incipient alcoholism which overtakes him about half way through, precipitating a shift from the relatively up-beat and sunny into the depths of Nordic gloom which dominate the later books.

The Bat is not a great crime novel but it is an interesting one, providing a vivid snapshot of Australia at the time, with all that a snapshot captures and leaves out.

As for Private Oz, on the very last page there is a ‘signed’ letter from James Patterson describing his ‘proud’ support of the National Literacy Trust in the UK which is ‘dedicated to delivering exciting initiatives to encourage people to read and to help raise literacy levels’. With its short chapters (some of only one page – some stretching to three), its staccato style and telegraphic prose, I rapidly came to the conclusion that this is a book written for people who don’t read much, and as such, is highly successful.

It moves fast, there are four simultaneous plots and a plethora of briefly sketched characters. Here’s Gisto describing his right hand woman, Mary Clarke, who usually dresses Tomb Raider style in a sleeveless tee shirt and cargo pants ‘She’s a big muscly girl but has the reaction time of Usain Bolt off the blocks’, or his ‘tech guru’ Darlene in a red cocktail dress ‘that accentuated her incredible curves’. And there you have it: action, violence and spectacle. Private Oz is a blockbuster movie of a book.

This review was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald (December 29, 2012)

About Sue Turnbull

I am Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Wollongong where I manage the Bachelor of Communication degree. My research interests include the study of media audiences, television studies in general and crime in particular. I also review crime fiction for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age am a convenor of Sisters in Crime Australia - a crime writers and readership network.
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