Rich pickings as Nesbo keeps digging into hole of Harry’s psyche

Crime column

Even Harry Hole has his limits. Police (Harvill Secker, €15.99) is the 10th outing for Jo Nesbo's Oslo-based police detective, a man who has over the course of the series come to resemble something of a secular Christ figure, ever willing to absorb pain, suffering and sins on behalf of the people of Norway. Police builds on the momentum of the last two Harry Hole novels, The Leopard (2011) and Phantom (2012), and the punishment – physical and psychological – Harry received during those investigations has finally persuaded him to retire from active service. Now lecturing at the police college, Harry is determined to never again put his family of Rakel and Oleg at risk – until a killer starts to target his former colleagues.

Nesbo has hit on a winning formula, combining intricate plotting, psychological insight, forceful prose and a fascinatingly complex, contradictory central character whose investigations strip bare the myth that the Scandinavian way of life represents some kind of society as nirvana. To his credit, however, Nesbo constantly tinkers with that formula, pushing Harry farther and farther into the moral wastelands with each tale.

Famously principled among his colleagues, Harry is privately conscious of how closely his dark thoughts mirror those of the maniacs he pursues. Here he encounters institutionalised homophobia warped by circumstance into a lethal evil, but even as he pursues the elusive killer Harry is made uncomfortably aware that he has demons of his own to face down when it comes to matters sexual.

Translated as ever by Don Bartlett, Police is a propulsive, claustrophobic descent into the darkest recesses of Harry Hole's psyche, and is probably Jo Nesbo's strongest offering since The Redbreast (2006).

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Snow White Must Die (Macmillan, €14.99) is the first of the bestselling thrillers by the German author Nele Neuhaus to be translated into English. The story opens with Tobias Sartorious returning home to the village of Altenhain after 10 years in prison for the murder of two teenage girls. Ostracised by the locals, and still protesting his innocence, Tobias meets 17-year-old Amelie, who physically resembles “Snow White”, the nickname given to one of the murdered teenagers. Convinced that Tobias is telling the truth, Amelie decides to investigate further.

It’s an intriguing set-up, but the reader hardly has time to draw breath before Neuhaus introduces a host of other characters, subplots, conspiracy theories and herrings of the most scarlet hue. It’s loosely framed as a police procedural – the novel is the fourth to feature Neuhaus’s detectives Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein – but, as the title suggests, it is closer in tone to a feverish Gothic fairytale. Contemporary setting aside, it’s a tale of feudal lords, vengeful villagers, the perversion of innocent sexuality and incredible reversals of fortune. All of which is terrific fun – the story rattles along at a furious rate – but fans of grittily realistic police procedurals will find their suspension of disbelief greatly strained.

Set in Dublin in early 1940, as the Wehrmacht blitzkriegs its way through France, Echoland by Joe Joyce (Liberties Press, €13.99) is a thoughtful blend of spy novel and historical thriller. In the midst of the flap, young soldier Paul Duggan finds himself promoted to G2, the army’s intelligence division, to investigate the possibility that an apparently respectable German citizen is a spy plotting a future invasion of Ireland. Struggling to come to terms with his new responsibilities, the callow Duggan is further undermined when his uncle, the politician Timmy Monaghan, prevails on him to use his new position to discover the whereabouts of Timmy’s daughter, who is missing, presumed abducted.

Joyce, who published a pair of critically acclaimed thrillers in the early 1990s, deftly charts Duggan’s path through the personal and the political, although it’s Joyce’s evocation of the tumult of the time, and the uncertainty of not knowing if the Germans would eventually invade – or the British, for that matter – that is particularly effective.

Duggan at first appears to be an unusually passive character for the hero of a spy thriller, but it’s a canny ploy. As the impressionable Duggan soaks up information from hawks, doves, spies and politicians, it’s left to the readers to make up their own minds about the thorny issue of Ireland’s neutrality during “the Emergency”.

Celeste Price, the narrator of Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa (Faber and Faber, €14.99), is a rather more active protagonist. A high-school English teacher in Florida, married to a local police officer, Celeste is friendly, helpful and dedicated in her vocation.

Respectability personified, she has a dark secret: she preys sexually on 14-year-old boys. It’s a chilling tale in many respects, not least because Celeste has no crisis of conscience about her behaviour and the effect it might have on the boys she targets, but it’s very difficult for the reader to dislike Celeste herself. Her first-person voice is charming, self-deprecating and witty, the amiable tone drawing the reluctantly complicit reader ever deeper into her immorality.

There are echoes of Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley, and of Jim Thompson's charming psychopath Lou Ford (Celeste's husband is called Ford), but Nutting's reinvention of the taboo-breaking femme fatale results in a self-determining female protagonist reminiscent of those created in recent years by Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott. That said, Celeste Price is a unique creation and Tampa is a singular tale. It may well be the most challenging crime novel you'll read all year.

Declan Burke is an author and journalist. With John Connolly, he is the co-editor of Books to Die For (Hodder & Stoughton).