With Stieg Larsson in the ground, Jo Nesbo is the reigning king of Scandinavian crime fiction. He’s sold 23 million books worldwide, including 3 million in his native Norway, a country with a population of just over 5 million. He is also a literal rock star, with a music career predating his life as a literary phenom. He brings a strong male punk rock swagger to his writing — “The Son,” his new stand-alone thriller, pulses with aggressive energy and splattering ultra-violence.
The novel takes place in a dark, corrupt Oslo, and it centers on a protagonist out for bloody revenge. Sonny Lofthus has been in prison for the last dozen years, serving time for two murders he confessed to as a teenager. He is innocent, of course, though not of conspiring to keep the real killers out of prison. An addict with no discernible purpose in life, he is content to cop to heinous crimes in exchange for a steady supply of heroin.
As a reliable murder scapegoat, he is a central pawn in a complicated network of corrupt actors — police officers, lawyers, prison officials, one desperate pedophile priest — led and controlled by Oslo’s crime overlord, an elusive, terrifying man known as the Twin.
Before his heroin days, Sonny was a bright student and a promising wrestler, a model boy who worshiped his model policeman father. That father died in disgrace when Sonny was 15, leaving a suicide note in which he confessed to being a mole for the criminal element of Oslo. His death and shame devastated his family, eventually driving his son to addiction and a career as Oslo’s go-to fall guy.
Sonny has an innocent, almost holy aura that leads fellow inmates to seek him out for spiritual healing and forgiveness. (If you thought a book called “The Son” would have a lazy Jesus theme, give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy the showdown in the church confessional.) When a cancerous inmate with a guilty conscience tells him the truth about his father’s death, Sonny insta-kicks his heroin habit and breaks out of prison.
His escape comes at an inconvenient time for the Twin and his criminal associates — Sonny had just agreed to confess to a particularly depraved murder that has to stay under wraps. As it turns out, the loss of a fall guy is the least of the worries Sonny Lofthus brings down on their evildoing heads.
As a confessor for hire and habitual jailhouse confidant, he has always known too much, and in his newly motivated state he is a nightmare for Oslo’s criminal elite. Fueled by thoughts of revenge and punishment, he goes on a bloody rampage, meting out justice while searching for answers about his father.
He tracks down unpunished murderers in a vigilante rager and executes them with an attention to poetic justice and mise-en-scène befitting a B-movie serial killer. His individual targets are somewhat haphazardly chosen for a righteous vendetta, but they form a path that narrows in on the Twin.
Law enforcement eventually makes the connection between the prison break and the murder spree that follows immediately in its wake. Aging detective Simon Kefas has a particular interest in Sonny as best friend to his murdered father. He and his partner track Sonny around town, trying to get to him before he gets got by the Twin.
Simon, a recovering gambling addict with an ailing wife, is a sympathetic secondary protagonist. His story has the additional advantage of providing the novel with a police procedural angle that interrupts the bloodshed while moving things along.
“The Son” is a 400-page thriller, and like any long work of sugary entertainment, it lags in spots and performs most poorly when depth is expected. The plot is fun and often complex, but the novel is flashier than it is meaningful. Nesbo addresses good and evil, sin and redemption, and even allows for a fair amount of moral ambiguity, but his treatment of these themes often feels almost incidental. The novel isn’t particularly thought provoking, and it offers little in the way of the social commentary and specificity of place that put Nordic noir on the map.
The writing is plain and functional, with a low but noticeable incidence of terrible sentences. The phrases “quite the opposite” and “on the contrary” get a lot more play than they deserve; during a tense moment between two characters, “the darkness grew denser around them without them noticing.”
Ultimately, though, the prose doesn’t matter too much as the story moves quickly from showdown to showdown, each one more violent and grandiose than the last. People get drugged, shot and occasionally eaten by dogs; the twists and turns are bold and surprising. Nesbo delivers a revved-up, entertaining red harvest, another guaranteed hit from a forceful thriller machine.
Cha is the author of “Follow Her Home.”
Translated by Charlotte Barslund
Alfred A. Knopf: 402 pp., $25.95