A former soccer player, a literal rock star and the reigning king of Nordic noir, Jo Nesbø has built his literary career out of violent thrillers pulsing with testosterone and adrenaline. His Harry Hole novels follow a hardboiled Oslo homicide detective as he tracks down neo-Nazis and serial killers; 2014's "The Son" featured a hypercompetent antihero on a gory revenge rampage.
But since last year's "Blood on Snow," Nesbø seems to have taken a softer turn, examining the emotional inner lives of criminals. His newest novel, "Midnight Sun" — not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer "Twilight" retelling of the same title — features a hapless criminal on the run from his boss, an Oslo drug lord known as the Fisherman.
Jon — or Ulf, as he calls himself for most of the book — is not the typical Nesbø hero. His rise through the Oslo underworld is a series of accidents and poor decisions, propelled by a desperate desire to pay for his dying child's medical treatment. "I've just got really bad judgment. That's why I was always prepared to follow the advice given by random strangers, and leave important decisions to other people," he narrates. "Cowardly is probably the word I'm looking for."
He goes from dealing hash just to finance his own habit to becoming the Fisherman's fixer. He is expected to commit the occasional murder, but Jon has no taste for violence. He makes an inevitable mistake and high-tails it to a tiny town in Finnmark in the extreme northeast of Norway, above the Arctic Circle, where the August sun blazes at midnight. "It's like Mars. A red desert. Uninhabitable and cruel. The perfect hiding place. Hopefully."
Most of the novel takes place in this small town, where Ulf gets to know the inhabitants while he waits for the Fisherman to find him. It's 1978, and the town is little and quaint, even for 40 years ago. The setting is well drawn, with nice details and a vivid portrayal of the Sámi population and the Laestadian church at the center of town life.
If Ulf weren't so feckless and hunted, he'd be a passable Anthony Bourdain — he buys tinned fish balls and sausage from a shop in a house basement; he drinks fermented reindeer milk at a Sámi wedding.
He takes up residence in a remote hunting cabin with a 360-degree view, and befriends some of the locals. A 10-year-old boy named Knut (like the famous polar bear cub, or Nesbø's brother) takes an immediate liking to Ulf, as does his mother, Lea, a beautiful woman trapped by religion and circumstance in a bad marriage with a missing husband. No one seems to believe Ulf's claim that he's just an innocent traveling hunter, but Lea lends him her husband's shotgun, and Knut lends him his grandfather's enormous Sámi knife.
Despite the setup, "Midnight Sun" is, for Nesbø at least, a pretty quiet book. Sure, Ulf has a target on his head, but he doesn't do much other than keep vigil and drink and get closer to Knut and Lea. There's some danger in the air, but not much action, and the life of the town supplies much more intrigue than the long rod of the Fisherman.
Ulf's attachment to Lea and Knut provides the real meat of the novel, and though these relationships develop in ways that are 100% predictable, they do have their lovely moments. Lea may not be the most three-dimensional character (she's beautiful but has a scar on her lip!), but Ulf builds a great rapport with the adorable Knut. The Laestadian mother and son also challenge Ulf to think about what he believes in — the religious theme is delivered with the heaviest of hands, but it gives structure to Ulf's internal self-reckoning, which is more central to the book than his showdowns with hit men.
Of course the advantage of showdowns with hit men is that they distract from mediocre writing. Nesbø's prose is generally fast and functional, but it would be a stretch to call it good. Land is "stony and flat as a pancake"; Lea's laughter is "a well. No, a slowly flowing river." Ulf engages in some blunt philosophical monologues: "[N]ow becomes then, now becomes then in an endless … sequence, and there's no reverse gear on this vehicle we call life."
Yet even without good prose or a thrilling plot, "Midnight Sun" manages to be a fun read, with a likable protagonist and a brisk, page-turning pace. Nesbø is a talented storyteller and his narrative intuition is on full display, even without the usual guns and guts.
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel "Dead Soon Enough."
Knopf: 288 pp., $23.95