Jo Nesbo – The Devil’s Star

Before you read this I just want give a little warning – there will be spoilers in here – some small but one whopper so please exercise caution depending on how much you hate spoilers if you haven’t already read this book.

For a bit of a different tack on things I’m going to try and weave in some key points from a TED talk I watched recently to do with storytelling, because I think Nesbo hits the mark on most points with this tale of a serial killer in Oslo.

The Norwegian capital is beginning to feel as dangerous as Emmerdale or Midsommer in terms of the body count and the deaths in this book soon rack up. The devil’s star – a pentacle – is featured at each murder scene either as piece of jewellery, marked in dust or carved in wood. The number five is also integral to the series of murders that Harry Hole is investigating. There’s a pile of exposition at the end that reveals that the murderer went to some pains to have this theme running through his murders.

As well as solving the crimes Hole has to contend with the fact he is working up to his long overdue dismissal from the force as a result of his continued alcoholism and seemingly unfounded allegations against his arch enemy Waaler a.k.a. The Prince. Chronological followers of the Harry Hole books will be happy to hear that this frustrating storyline does come to a conclusion in this book.

There’s some very crafty timeline trickery in a similar vein to that employed in the Saw movies, an almighty but frankly predictable twist (the solution of the crimes seems all to simple and the number of pages left to read makes it obvious that the story hasn’t finished) and the usual explicit descriptions surrounded mutilations and sex that we’ve come to expect from Nesbo. There’s also some quite poetic stuff.

So what about this TED talk? Okay so let’s take a look. Point one is ‘make me care’. This one is easy, Nesbo already has us caring about Hole as a struggling alcoholic, then we find his relationship with Rakel has broken down, he has tried to reveal Waaler’s arms trading and failed, and of course he makes us care about the people who are being killed.

The next point is that a story is like a joke – always leading to a punchline. We, as readers, know that Hole is going to solve the puzzles placed in his way as he goes about investigating and solving the series of murders but we have to work for our meal. We are expected to problem solve along with Hole. We are given 2 and 2, but not the 4 – we’re expected to think about it and get there before Hole. This is why too much exposition in a story or a film is troublesome – it is demeaning to the intelligent reader of viewer to be spoon fed information and have everything explained as it happens. Where’s the mystery in that?

The next key element to good storytelling is that all characters have a ‘spine’ or a little wind-up motivational motor, a scratch they need to itch that drives their good or bad decisions. Hole has at least four motivators in this book that drive his decisions – a yearning for Rakel, a lust to avenge the death of his colleague at the hands of The Prince, a sense of duty towards his job as a homicide policeman and finally the itch of the bottle.

The concept of change is cited as fundamental to stories. For Nesbo the change can always be a new crime for Hole to investigate, but in this book it’s also the idea that Hole is on his last case, he seems to have lost Rakel and desperately needs to stop drinking. Change is also a motivator for the murderer and for Waaler who knows that Hole has sussed him out. The solution of course is to offer Hole a job on his crew with a threat to Rakel and her son if he does not comply.

Change creates anticipation and tension. This is evident in spades in this book. Characters act is the way they always have until various spanners are thrown into the works. For Waaler it is Hole potentially uncovering him that is the spanner and for Hole it is Waaler’s job offer and Rakel’s unspoken ultimatum.

A strong theme always runs through a well-told story. In the Devil’s Star this is not just the references to the devil that pervade the theatrical murders but moreover one of people playing parts like actors on a stage. It’s no accident that the production of a musical is featured heavily and the first performance coincides with Hole and Rakel seeming to resolve their differences if only for one night. Waaler plays a role of respected policeman while being The Prince an evil and manipulative arms dealer set upon creating a cathedral of corruption. The murderer plays a role of another man in an effort to frame him. Hole has the usual roles of lover, drunk and knight in shining armour.

People always advise writers to ‘use what they know’. If you spent your working life looking after waterway planning and fishing as a hobby then don’t try and write about being a wedding planner in Manhattan. Perhaps you could instead write a book about salmon fishing and canals. You can twist it up by setting to story in The Yemen and you might just have a hit. Nesbo has obviously had some varied experiences as a footballer, musician and economist. Nesbo the man for me seems to come through quite genuinely in the passages where he describes Hole’s relationships with women and the bottle. I think he’s writing about what he knows in these bits. Either that or he’s even better a writer than I already think he is.

Finally the TED talk asked whether the storyteller can invoke wonder, an affirmation of being alive. I think Nesbo does this by always providing Hole with his hero’s reward at the end of the story. Despite all the trials and tribulations that he faces Hole ultimately just wants to love and be loved by a good woman. Despite all the crime fantasy Hole is ultimately very grounded in reality in terms of his simple yearnings. He takes delight in simple pleasures and for me this invokes wonder. Equally on the opposite end of the spectrum the gruesome and elaborate death scenes featured in the book invoke wondrous horror in much the same way as a good Stephen King book.

So there we have it in a somewhat elongated nutshell. A coconut shell perhaps. An alternative post could have been comprised of just four words – great book; read it!

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