It’s been said that there are only two plots in all of fiction. In the first, a man goes on a journey. In the second, a stranger comes to town. “Midnight Sun,” by Norwegian crime master Jo Nesbo, is a worthwhile, if mildly disappointing, iteration of the latter.
The stranger in this case is Jon Hansen, an Oslo contract killer on the run, and the town is Kåsund, a remote seaside village he hopes will serve as his hideout from the sinister Fisherman, an all-powerful crime boss Jon has just double-crossed. Jon arrives in Kåsund by bus in the dead of night which, this being northern Norway in summertime, is bathed in eerie sunlight. With only the clothes on his back, a gun in his pocket, and a bulging wad of the Fisherman’s money, our exhausted hero, now calling himself Ulf, takes refuge in the local church where, having dozed on the sacristy floor, he is awakened by Lea Sara, a beautiful Sámi (Laplander) widow who is also the daughter of the pastor whose pious religious sect, the Læstadians, inhabit the village.
If this set-up seems vaguely familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of Harrison Ford in “Witness,” or of any number of Clint Eastwood films. So it’s no great spoiler to tell you that the bad guys are coming for Jon/Ulf, or that forbidden love will bloom on the windswept tundra, or that the insular little town will have to decide whether to give up or protect its mysterious stranger.
“Midnight Sun” ($23.95, from Alfred A. Knopf) is a sequel of sorts to Nesbo’s 2015 thriller “Blood on Snow,” in which a different Oslo hit man, Olav Johansen, runs afoul of the selfsame Fisherman, with fatally tragic consequences. But the velocity and poetry that made “Blood on Snow” an international bestseller are largely absent from the sequel, which proceeds at a more languid pace in service of less grandiose aspirations. What the two novels share, however, are compelling protagonists torn by the conflicting imperatives of their chosen professions and their inherent good natures.
Jon, you see, is not your typical hit man. For one thing, he’s incapable of committing murder, and his recruitment by the Fisherman was, we learn, the result of a misunderstanding. Jon also had a young daughter in hospital whose life he’d been desperate to save, which made it essential he continue accepting the Fisherman’s commissions. But when he faked the death of a rival drug dealer who later turned up alive, Jon had no choice but to cut and run.
If you’ve never read Nesbo before, I’d recommend that you stash both these books in your TBR pile and instead start with “The Bat,” the first installment in his acclaimed ten-volume Inspector Harry Hole series of Oslo police procedurals. These wonderful novels will remind crime aficionados of the very best of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mysteries. “Midnight Sun,” in contrast, reads more like Nesbo’s attempt to mimic Lee Child’s lonewolf Jack Reacher franchise.
Not that a Nordic Noir version of Lee Child is such a bad thing, but it’s a little like listening to Rod Stewart sing the Great American Songbook – the voice is still great, but it seems oddly misapplied. This might be attributable to Nesbo’s switch from the third-person narration he employs so easily in his Harry Hole novels to the first-person voice of both “Blood on Snow” and “Midnight Sun.” Or it might be a function of his change in translators, from Don Bartlett to Neil Smith. The result, in any event, while still a first-rate thriller, is not the transcendent stuff we’ve come to expect from one of the masters of the genre.
Chuck Greaves is the award-winning author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury), a Wall Street Journal “Best Books of 2015” selection. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.