Like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Jo Nesbø’s The Devil’s Star is a Scandinavian crime novel starring a protagonist with a checkered past, an uncertain future, and a girl Friday who assists him using her potent combo of computer savvy and photographic memory. It’s a sturdy framework on which to hang any number of red herrings, cloaked informants, and double-crosses. Unfortunately, Star also shares Tattoo’s draggy finale, as detective Harry Hole cracks a case that’s propulsive without being captivating, before finally taking bleary-eyed aim at demons within and without.
The Devil’s Star—originally published two years before Dragon Tattoo, incidentally—is the fifth novel in the popular Harry Hole series, and newcomers might require some priming on the long-simmering tensions between Hole and crooked colleague Tom Waaler for the book’s middle to really hit home. The rest of the dynamics are easy enough to fill in: Harry is a chronically pickled detective with an exasperated ex and an intuitive sense that borders on that of Sherlock Holmes. He would’ve been given the bum’s rush years ago if not for benevolent chief inspector Bjarne Møller, who calls him in to investigate a missing-person report that’s only the first domino in a chain of seemingly unmotivated murders, all joined by amputated digits and a red, five-sided diamond calling card.
Nesbø is brutally efficient with his characters, thrusting them into the spotlight, giving them just enough dialogue, aspiration, and quirk to make them feel roundly human—and then snatching it all away in the pop of a pistol or the cut of a knife. By comparison, Harry Hole occasionally feels cut off from that world of unforgiving cause and effect. He’s tormented by dreams, and his alcohol dependence gets a nod every other page or so, but in spite of his threatened dismissal from the force, his boozing never seems to have real repercussions. All the damage he’s sustained occurred before this story. The consequences never amount to much more than a stern talking-to, and sometimes his penchant for getting obliterated is the engine for moving his investigation forward.
As the body count rises, so does the level of gruesomeness at each crime scene, and Star coasts along on the sense of creeping dread Nesbø conjures up. That same sense of inevitability goes from ominous to grating, though, as he employs creaky devices like the immortal “Enhance that image. Again. Oh my God!” and serves up clunky exposition about symbolism like a Norwegian Dan Brown. Star is fitfully engaging, but when the underlying structure is so plainly visible, why slog through the entire 450 pages to see how it all turns out?