The Redbreast – Jo Nesbø

Title – The Redbreast

Author – Jo Nesbø (translated by Don Bartlett)

Published – 2006

Genre – Crime fiction

I’ve been aware for a while that Jo Nesbø has been something of a gap in my crime fiction reading. I was lucky to win a copy of The Redbreast via Twitter a little while ago and have finally got round to reading it. Billed as “The next Stieg Larsson” and with many of the Harry Hole titles prominently advertised, I had high hopes.

Goodness what a slow book it was to get going! The very beginning was fine, with a few different and seemingly separate storylines developing. Then the story moves back to 1942, giving the reader no real idea of the relevance of this new thread. The story then moved back and forth between the present day and the wartime setting. There was an obvious assumption that one of the characters in 1942 was also someone from the 1999 thread, but the reader is kept in the dark as to who. Sadly, I didn’t actually care. There was very little about any of the characters to like, and I didn’t feel that more than one or two were dealt with in any detail. It was critical to the story was that the motivation was kept a mystery, but this made for a difficult read.

The one engaging character in the book is the main detective – Harry Hole. But even he felt like a fairly typical crime fiction detective – unorthodox, a heavy drinker.

The story follows Hole’s efforts to uncover who has paid for a gun which will probably be used by an assassin in Norway. There are a few clues that the gun has been used before the bodies start turning up. Then Hole has to race to find the assassin before the final target is killed. I may be making it sound more exciting than it was!

I really struggled to get through the book. It is long (600+ pages) and at about 150 pages in I could happily have given up. When I mentioned this on Twitter I was surprised to find that Nesbø wasn’t quite as widely worshipped as I had thought. I pressed on and it actually picked up in the middle, but towards the end it became harder to read. I found myself skipping descriptive passages & just trying to spot action and dialogue. I think there was a good story in there – but it was hidden somewhere in the 600 pages!

As well as not enjoying the writing I was also disappointed by the ending, which I thought was unsatisfactory in several ways (although I wouldn’t want to give anything away here).

I’m tempted to think that I can now cross Nesbø off my list – been there, read that, although I do think I might seek out another title but try to spot one which others have enjoyed more than The Redbreast. Is there someone who can make a convincing argument for pressing on with other titles?

You can see another review of this title at Reactions to Reading.

Score – 3/5



  1. Sue – I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this one more than you did. I agree with you that it’s long but I guess I just got more interested in it than you did. Have you tried Nemesis? I know several people who think that’s at least as good as – maybe better than – The Redbreast.

    1. Thanks Margot – this was the first Nesbo I tried, perhaps I’ll give another one a try in a while, to be honest I actually still have the third Stieg Larsson to read too!

  2. I admit to having read all Jo Nesbo’s translated books, but with mixed feelings each time. They are very exciting and well-plotted in some ways, and I do like the character of Harry – to some extent. Yet they have a horror-comic book element to them: Harry becomes more and more like Superman and there are a lot of awfully gruesome set-pieces (describing slow deaths by horrible means, etc) in most of the books. The translations by Don Bartlett are superb. Each time I read a Nesbo book I’m on the fence about whether to read another, but I end up doing so.

    The plot of Redbreast is particularly complicated in its historical aspects, I too found them confusing partly as I don’t have the detailed knowledge of Norway in WW2 that most of the original readers must have done. I think it is probably the most convoluted plot of any of the books. It forms a loose trilogy with Nemesis (mentioned by Margot above – a good book but I thought the solution to the crime daft) and The Devil’s Star. The subsequent novels are more conventionally a series.

    I would say that if you weren’t that thrilled with Redbreast, you probably won’t be any more thrilled with the rest – they are, in effect, more of the same, with some development of Harry and his personal relationships.

    1. Oh dear – that doesn’t make the rest sound promising! I agree about the Norwegian aspects of WWII – I’ve read quite a lot of books set in that period, but I felt at quite a loss. Perhaps when I’ve finished all the other books I have to read I’ll try another one!

  3. I read The Snowman and although I enjoyed it at the time I didn’t make a huge impact and at the end I found it forgettable. I also had very high expectations for Nesbo’s novels and bought a few which, after The Snowman experience have been sitting on the shelf on the waiting list. Oh well.

  4. Interesting to get a new perspective about the machine that is Jo Nesbo. I agree with Maxine that his books are a curious mix of gruesome and good plotting. I personally think Redbreast is pretty representative of his writing. Perhaps you might want to wait until ‘The Bat’ is out in the autumn as this was the first Harry Hole book as it might be illuminating reading him from the beginning.

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