Jo Nesbo has a new Harry Hole book out but there are loads already in the series. So today we look at an older, one-off novel, Headhunters, which gives us a very different protagonist. If Robbie Munro is picaresque, the lead of this novel (and film) takes the description to extremes. The result is a novel that can be read in a few hours but whose imprint will last far longer.
Roger Brown knows all about appearances. As a headhunter, he manipulates reality to instal his choices into Norway’s corporate corner offices; as an art thief, he substitutes fakes into his victims’ frames. But it’s clear that Brown feels that he is himself a fake: his wife is ’not in his league’, and perhaps he’s playing at all this anyway, just to get back at his abusive father. The reader isn’t even sure that Brown believes in his beloved interrogation framework – he gleefully points out that the method has led in the USA to hundreds of wrongful convictions, but Brown is both intelligent enough to know that that doesn’t make the framework wrong for his own very different requirements and cynical enough not to bother to make his case.
He’s an unlikely hero and I’m not sure when we flip over into having sympathy for him. Is it while he is making his final art theft? Or when the chases become more physical yet Brown seems more intrigued by the battles of his past? Or when we realise that behind this cocky criminal is an unhappy 12 year old still trying to rebel? There is little joy in his life, although he is proud of his hair, and he has a workbench that he will ’never, ever use’ (and he can identify a ’surprisingly good pan-pipe version of Wonderwall’ when he hears one). Racked with guilt at forcing his wife to have an abortion, he seeks to make amends by subsidising her wilfully-unbusinesslike gallery which in turns means that he has to carry out his art thefts.
Brown is forced to confront what is important in his life and it turns out that (possibly a result of his father forcing him to play chess) he is actually rather good at strategy: having become the hunted he draws the hunter into the open. Later, he describes his situation as requiring certain listed skills which just happen (though Brown/Nesbo is not so crass as to spell this out) to be those needed from a chief executive. Much of the plot revolves around the choices Brown makes in whom he decides to trust: the twists involve Brown reinterpreting clues and changing his mind about what they meant based on carefully paying attention to the tall tales he himself has placed into his everyday life.
A theme in this novel is authenticity: from the cobbled streets that double as fashion accessories to the use of art as a collectible, via the use of a TV zoom to change viewers’ moods. No one is what they seem – apart from, perhaps, the sidekick Ove Kjikerud. In a late passage Nesbo considers whether it is important to create your own weather, and notes (in a paragraph that has resonance for post-Brexit and pre-election Britain) that the focus of the elite is for the cards not to be re-dealt.
As a thriller, this has everything: betrayal, ambivalence, an outstanding lead character and some interesting supporting characters, a bonkers plot and enough points of tension to really involve the reader, followed by a near-but-not-quite-redemption for at least one character. I’m not sure about the scene in the outside toilet – but if you’re going to have such a scene I guess that subtlety isn’t that important. It is (thankfully) toned down slightly in the film – I suppose I had better mention the film: it’s good, though as you’d expect the book has more layers. I’d do book then film then perhaps book again.
If the publication of The Thirst has made you think of checking out Jo Nesbo, Headhunters might be a good place to start.