Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ghosts in Standalone Novels by Jo Nesbo and Peter Robinson

A scene from Headhunters (2011), based on Jo Nesbo's novel

Authors of a substantial corpus of popular police procedurals or featuring a homicide detective must relish the opportunity to leave the dictates of the genre and experiment with freestanding fiction. The internationally best-selling Norwegian crime writer, Jo Nesbo, who has churned out nine Harry Hole (pronounced Hurler) thrillers, has drawn upon some of his familiar trademarks – gruesome scenes, black humour, fast pacing and intricate plotting – to produce a pared down caper story Headhunters (2008, translated into English 2011, Vintage Canada). The British Canadian writer, Peter Robinson, best known for his successful nineteen novels about Chief Inspector Alan Banks of the Yorkshire police force, has recently released his third standalone, Before the Poison (McClelland & Stewart, 2011), a worthy winner of the 2013 Pilys Award for best mystery. Despite the vast differences in structure, style and narrative, what is similar about these novels is the function that ghosts play in propelling the narrative.

More people are likely to have seen the vastly entertaining Norwegian 2011 film adaption than have read Headhunters. The film received generally favourable reviews in large part because of the astute choices director Morten Tyldum made in casting the three leads: Aksel Hennie as the diminutive well-coiffed Roger Brown, the headhunter for a high end recruitment agency, Synnove Macody Lund as his tall beautiful wife, Diana, who runs a fashionable art gallery and the Danish actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as the deadly former special forces operator Clas Greve. Like any other director, Tyldum freely makes changes from the novel and anyone with even a cursory acquaintance with the novel would applaud his choices. Many of the more memorable and grisly scenes from the book are in the film, and at least one scene from the episode in which Roger hides from Claus in the outhouse excrement that is not included is understandable as it spares the viewers (and the actors) from cringing in acute embarrassment.  

Nonetheless, some of the directorial decisions alter the meaning of the novel. The backstory about Brown’s father, a drunken, abusive husband and father is perhaps understandably omitted from the film but it is the ghost of his father that Roger is determined will not inhabit his soul. While driving drunk with his wife in the car, his father had an accident that killed her. Roger is so fearful that his father’s genes could be passed down that he will not give Diana a child. His unwillingness to consider that option is a major source of tension between them and explains why she is so receptive to Greve’s seductive appeal when he promises to give her the child she so desperately wants. In the film, Roger is manipulative and an art thief on the side in order to subsidize his wife’s gallery and provide her with an expensive modernist home. When he interviews clients, he scopes them out for high end artworks as well as corporate prowess. When Roger finds a mark, he arranges for the client to do another interview while he and a seedy sidekick case his house and steal the art. But when he becomes the quarry of the murderous Greve, who is head of a tech company that specializes in tracking devices, our sympathies are with the resourceful Brown. When Brown commits acts of violence, it is arguably in self-defence.  This is emphatically not the case in the novel where Roger is a darker more ruthless calculator resembling the psychopathic Greve. Indeed, Roger can be likened to Patricia Highsmith’s antihero, Tom Ripley. Despite his best intentions, Roger has inhabited the spirit of his dead father.   

One of the other pleasures of the novel is Nesbo’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward police procedurals. Technically, the Harry Hole novels cannot be classified as such because Harry, although a brilliant cop, is an embarrassment to the Oslo police force: an alcoholic who is mostly despised by colleagues and his superiors. For the most part, they are an unprincipled lot and would jettison Harry if they could. In Headhunters Brede Speere is highly respected investigator courted by the media. In over twelve pages, Speere is questioned about the murder spree and its supposed resolution. Although some of the details are accurate, his overall analysis is deeply flawed. Nesbo must have enjoyed writing these pages and the reader is left wondering how frequently this scenario reflects real life. The film briefly shows the interview but I think the satire is lost. 

Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison is a vastly different book with its leisurely pace, quiet almost elegiac tone and more complex structure. In 2011, a wealthy retiree, Chris Lowndes, leaves a lucrative living writing film scores in Hollywood by returning to his roots in Yorkshire and purchasing an old secluded home so that he can come to terms with his grief over the death of his wife, Laura, from cancer and reignite an old passion by writing a Schubertian piano sonata. Once he learns that his home was the site of a murder that occurred sixty years ago, the victim being the eminent Doctor Ernest Fox, and that his wife, Grace, was hanged for poisoning him, he becomes increasingly interested, even obsessed in proving her innocence – for reasons that become understandable over the course of the novel. Robinson evokes the spooky atmosphere of a Daphne Du Maurier novel when Chris is alone at night with its creaking floors and howling winds. Given that a painting of Grace is on the wall, it is perhaps not too surprising that on one occasion, he sees what he believes is her image in a mirror or was it a “trick of the moonlight?” In his dreams and reveries, he sees Grace who becomes interchangeable with Laura. He feels Grace’s presence in the house and memories of Laura, particularly her last days, haunt him. If some readers do not accept that the ghost of Roger Brown’s father is an important character in Headhunters, no one will contest that the spirit of Grace Fox and to a lesser extent that of Laura Lowndes permeate Before the Poison.

Chris’s first person account of his need to track down people who knew her by travelling to London, Paris and even South Africa is interspersed with passages from a contemporary account of the trial in Famous Trials and Grace Fox’s wartime journal. They offer different perspectives and styles that enable the reader to understand more fully what took place the night of Fox’s death as well as provide startling insights into the war, both at home and abroad, and illuminate the sexist attitudes of the times. The difference between the contemporary account of the trial and Grace’s wartime journal is stark. Ostensibly, the former is an objective account of the crime and trial but Famous Trials’ version is in reality moralistic and judgemental in tune with the biases and prejudices of a judge and all male jury in rural 1953 England. Clearly, Grace was convicted on purloined evidence, which was at best circumstantial and at its worse based on testimony that was full of lies and innuendo. The real reason for her conviction was that she had an affair with a younger man, whom Chris tracks down in Paris, an elderly painter who never got over the grief of losing her. By contrast, Grace’s journal reveals a wartime nurse who displayed extraordinary courage and resilience in the wake of immense suffering, including the loss of personal friends, during her time in the Far East and in the European war zones. The ghostly revenant that haunted Chris has now been replaced by a vital, compassionate woman. Yet in keeping with the spirit of the time, her prose describing the horror is restrained and she minimizes her own role even though she was awarded a Royal Red Cross, the highest honour a military nurse can earn, a fact that of course never surfaced at her trial. Perhaps that is not surprising given that she was told at the end of the war that she should return to being a young lady and never talk about her experiences to friends and loved ones lest she be regarded as a pariah.  No wonder that the author of Famous Trials noted her “grim silences,” “dark moods” and “unpredictable outbursts” without having a clue about her wartime trauma.  

Through his own research and painstaking interviews, Chris is able to unearth evidence of Dr. Fox’s secret wartime activities. He has already learned from elderly locals that Fox was an arrogant, cold physician and indifferent to the suffering of his patients, and that he had little regard for his younger wife after she presented him with an heir. Chris’s discoveries, which cannot be revealed here, are disturbing but not surprising given Fox’s character. That his wife found out about his activities, and given that she had seen evidence of Nazi atrocities in Normandy, might offer a motive for murder that contemporaries did not remotely consider since they were fixated on her adultery and her alleged desire to kill him for his money. But Grace’s character gleaned from her journal challenges that theory. How Robinson resolves these conundrums and their relationship to Laura’s death, is in my estimation most satisfying. Perhaps his most incisive insight is how rarely individuals can step outside the realities of their own time because they are immersed in its prejudices and preconceptions.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit

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