This is apparently the debut novel of Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, released in English only recently and after a whole raft of later Harry Hole mysteries were already long in the public domain in their English translation. While it is gratifying to learn that (1) Hole was once capable of a romantic relationship and (2) that Hole was once capable of having a whole conversation with someone, this novel doesn’t reveal a whole lot more about this morose if brilliant drunk of a detective except that he wasn’t so morose in his early years. I guess dealing with a whole lot of murders—and murderers–over the years does something to you. Some reviewers say that this first novel gives new insight into Hole’s character, but I didn’t learn a whole lot not already gleaned from later novels.
Harry is sent “down under” to Australia from his native Norway to try to solve the murder of a very young Norwegian woman who had been a minor television star back home. It turns out Harry is not really meant to do much but follow in the footsteps of the lead detective, a rare Aboriginal member of the Sydney police force, and give the official Norwegian imprimatur to eventually sweeping the unsolved murder under the rug due to lack of evidence. Harry, for some reason, fixates on the woman’s former boyfriend, a drug dealer, as the likely suspect, but gets nowhere in the investigation except to determine that a serial killer is at work.
The bulk of the novel is filled with various colorful characters that Harry meets along the way, from the delightful philosophizing detective Andrew Kensington to several of Kensington’s Aboriginal friends, lethal boxer Robin Toowoomba and cross-dressing professional clown Otto Rechtnagel. Also an apparently homeless Indian named Joseph who ends up saving Hole’s life at least once. There are some very nasty murders along the way, and lots of blood too, but I’ll confess I was too confused by the characters’ complicated names and personal stories and repeated divergences into the Aboriginal equivalent of Aesop’s Fables to attempt my usual advance solving of the who-dun-it.
As I said, the reader is treated to a lot of Aboriginal fables which inject a good deal of color (and a few very deeply buried hints about the murderer) to the novel which is otherwise slow-moving, complicated and confusing, and probably just about right for the first in a detective series. Hole has a romantic tryst with a Swedish bar-girl with a heart of gold (is there any other kind?) which doesn’t end well, and I for one never figured out why Birgitta agrees to do what she does, but anyway…. The bat is the symbol of death in Aboriginal mythology, thus the name of the novel. Nesbo reveals his signature knack for quirky and often humorous dialogue and otherwise a rather dark view of the world (which keeps getting darker in progressive installments), but Nesbo fans needn’t look back to The Bat in order to go forward.