Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Hole story

I blogged a little while ago about the translators' panel at this year's Crimefest.  The discussion was fascinating and all the panel members were luminaries in the field, but I think I've begun to develop a particular respect for Don Bartlett.  Bartlett, among other credits, is the English translator of the Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbo, author of the Harry Hole series.  I've just finished my third of Nesbo's books, and he's emerging as my current favourite among the plethora of Scandinavian crime writers now appearing in English.  The atttraction of the books for me is the character of Hole himself, and the wonderful deadpan wit that permeates the dialogue.  Hence my admiration for Bartlett - I presume that the tone of the books is Nesbo's, but Bartlett succeeds admirably in establishing the perfect English voice for the books and their characters. 

There has been some controversy about the publication of the English translations as the books were, rather unhelpfully, published out of order.  Bartlett explained that The Devil's Star, actually the fifth book in the series, had been published first in English simply because it had attracted the most interest in Scandinavia.   This is fairly standard publishing practice, and in most series it doesn't matter too much.  Unfortunately, the third, fourth and fifth of the Hole books have an overarching sub-plot (if a sub-plot can overarch - underpinning, perhaps?) which is critical to the development of the core characters.  Although each of the books stands up well in its own right, reading The Devil's Star first would inevitably have reduced the pleasures of the preceding books.  

Purely by chance, I picked up The Redbreast (the earliest of the books so far available) first and so was able to enjoy the books in the order intended.  The pleasures of the books are manifold - as well as Hole's character and wit, I like the fact that Nesbo is prepared to deal fully with the consequences of his characters and plots.  Hole, for example,  is a serious long-term alcoholic, with all that that entails - not simply a middle-aged cop who has a whisky or two too many at the end of a hard day.  The Redbreast contains a plot development which I won't reveal but which is genuinely shocking and which reverberates through the succeeding books. 

Some have complained that Nesbo's plotting is too convoluted, and there's probably some truth in that.  At times, the books have a slightly Christiesque desire to spring yet another surprise which (while there's nothing wrong with Agatha) for me sits slightly uneasily with the essentially realistic depiction of character and situation.  But that's a minor gripe - and I'm sure many readers will see the complex plotting as a strength.  What stays with me is Hole's dry-as-dust, sometimes bitter irony, and a cast of highly memorable characters. 

I was fortunate enough to walk away from the Crimefest pub quiz with, as my share of the second-place prize (achieved courtesy largely of Ali Karim and Peter Rozovsky, it must be said) a copy of Nesbo's latest English release, The Redeemer. So that's next on the pile to be read - in, I'm pleased to say, the right order. 

Comments

1. Peter said...

I very much enjoy the voice in the Harry Hole novels, which means Bartlett has to be doing a good job. Itís hard for me to tell just what heís up to, since I donít know Norwegian, but itís no mean trick to sustain a narrative voice and a memorable protagonist through novels that long.

I have read the books in the order in which they appeared in English, not the order in which they are written. That was a bit of a jolt.
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2. Michael Walters said...

Yes - I fully agree about Bartlett. I have no Norwegian either, but my sense, from what Bartlett said at Crimefesr, was that he's very much in tune with Nesbo's voice. And I was very lucky to read them in the right order!

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