Having quit the police after the nightmarish events of The Snowman we find Harry Hole using opium and gambling in Hong Kong to try and ween himself off alcohol. Great plan Harry, way to go. Meanwhile back in Norge, women are being brutally killed using a (fictional) torture device called ‘Leopold’s Apple’ which when inserted into the mouth and activated shoots spring loaded spikes into the victims head. Pretty gory stuff reminiscent of the Saw series of films and brutal even for Nesbo.
Hole is convinced to return to Norway after being told that his father, Olav Hole, is terminally ill in hospital. Crime Squad wants Harry back to help catch another serial killer. The unit is in a power struggle with Norway’s national crime investigation unit Kripos. Bellman the ambitious Kripos boss wants all murder investigations placed under his jurisdiction.
Ever the reluctant hero, and pained by the loss of Rakel and her son from his life, Hole doesn’t want to get involved with the murder investigation but is drawn into working secretly on the case for Crime Squad while a parallel Kripos investigation struggles along. This investigation is eventually discovered by Kripos and shut down despite the progress being made.
Hooked on solving the case, Harry talks Bellman into letting him join Kripos as a consultant figuring that it is more important to catch the killer than fight over who has jurisdiction.
It is eventually discovered that all the victims stayed at a ski lodge on the same night. Bellman sets up a honey trap at the ski lodge to draw out the killer but it ends in the injury and death of some of the police investigators. Harry is almost killed and Nesbo writes brilliantly about him being trapped in an avalanche. The Norwegian title of the book refers to the situation where your lungs are compressed by snow and you find you cannot breathe. It translates something like ‘Iron Heart’ – it’s a shame that the translation is called The Leopard as it is quite a weak connection to the story.
In a scene straight out of Silence of the Lambs, Harry goes to see The Snowman for some insight into the psychology of the serial killer. With his help and that of a rather far-fetched computer genius character in a mental asylum (also from the previous book) the killer is eventually tracked down to the Congo.
Hole predictably ends up with the apple in his mouth and has to mutilate himself to get out of the trap. It is this self-mutilation which troubled me the most for a couple of reasons. Firstly all through the book people keep asking Hole what he has done to his jaw – something has happened to it where it was broken and didn’t heal properly. Either I missed the back story or it was never explained but it’s a pretty clumsy set up for the horrible climax in any case. Also despite having a busted jaw and a big bloody rip in his face Harry has no trouble talking to people afterwards – very odd.
Hole has been having a bit of a saucy dalliance with a Crime Squad colleague, Kaja the woman who went and got him from Hong Kong, but he sees Rakel at his father’s funeral. They meet up briefly and it’s enough for him to reject the budding relationship with the other woman. This happened in the same kind of way in The Redeemer when he rejected the Salvation Army woman he was romantically involved with. Hole runs off to Hong Kong at the end of the book to try and deal with all the madness and mayhem that has surrounded him during the case.
For me The Leopard was more enjoyable than The Snowman as it featured a lot of interesting locations, some very clever plotting (albeit a bit clumsy at times) and a lot of interesting characters. I loved the scenes based in Hong Kong and the Congo and the volcano edge finale. It was almost Bond-esque at times.