Norwegian noir that’s impossible to put down

Richard Lipez

THE WASHINGTON POST – You don’t have to be a psychic to recognise the bad karma accumulating year by year for the Opgard brothers, Roy and Carl, in The Kingdom, a dense, suspenseful bundle of Norwegian noir by Jo Nesbo, the author of the esteemed Harry Hole police detective series. Melancholy, Harry is nowhere to be found in the remote village of Os. Instead, it’s Kurt Olsen, the downcast town sheriff, who is certain these two generally well-liked village chaps – their parents died when the boys were in their late teens and Dad’s beloved Cadillac DeVille flew off a cliff – are clever homicidal connivers. The constable is right, of course, for what little good his investigatory brainpower does him against a couple of sociopaths.

At 549 pages, The Kingdom feels as much like a miniseries as a novel. You’re so curious about what the next episode will bring that even if you’ve stepped away from the book for a meal or a good night’s sleep.

The sometimes droll, sometimes eerily affectless, occasionally enraged narrator is Roy, the older brother, a mechanic who runs the Os convenience store and gas station. A few people in town think Roy is too protective the younger brother he protects from bullies and other villagers. It soon becomes apparent, though, that it sets an increasingly ugly chain of events in motion is of a different sort.

While brutal emotional injury is at the centre of the novel, social change is what keeps the Opgard family saga churning. A new expressway threatens to bypass the town and leave livelihoods in the lurch. It’s Carl who comes back from college in Minnesota and a real estate career in Toronto with a plan to save Os’ economy. He wants to build a 200-room tourist hotel on the Opgard grazing land, and his scheme is to finance the project with local villagers putting up their property as collateral. If you think uh-oh, you’re right.

I have no doubt there are some lovely people in Norwegian mountain villages, but the people of Os are by and large a sad lot. There’s some excellent Albee-esque relational to-ing and fro-ing among Roy, Carl and Shannon, the wife Carl brings to Os from Canada.

Roy falls head over heels for his sister-in-law, and she for him, and their trysts are both wild and fraught.

Most of Nesbo’s characters are wracked with guilt – for good reason. Roy tells himself that “a minor theft, a trivial rejection – you never get over. They’re like lumps in the body that get encapsulated but can still ache on cold days, and some nights suddenly begin to throb,” Carl, though, is less bothered by conscience. Of selling one’s soul, he said, “It’s always a buyer’s market when it comes to souls.”

Why do mentally healthy readers want to spend time with these godawful people? Writers like Nesbo have that knack for instilling just enough humanity in their miscreants that we keep hoping they might, if not repent, then at least acknowledge their moral scuzziness. Or, being morally imperfect ourselves, we sort of hope they don’t get caught – at least not yet. Think Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Walter White in Breaking Bad. The Kingdom can only end in one way, and most souls will find Nesbo’s finish both a relief and – don’t look while I flagellate myself – a bit of a disappointment.