British first edition cover
|Country||Norway (one episode in South Africa and one in Austria)|
|Series||Harry Hole, #3|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (hard and paperback)|
|Pages||450 pp (Eng. hardback trans.)|
|ISBN||1-84343-217-X (Eng. trans.)|
|Preceded by||The Cockroaches|
The novel begins during former President Clinton's visit to Norway, where Harry reluctantly ends up playing an important role. Ramifications of the mission Harry is tasked with lead to him investigating neo-Nazi activity in Norway, and delving into a crime that has its roots in the battlefields of the Eastern Front of World War II.
A large part of the book is laid at the time of the Second World War – specifically, the Siege of Leningrad, wartime Vienna and the Bombing of Hamburg – making The Redbreast a war novel as well as a crime novel. The book touches deeply on the still highly sensitive issue of Norwegian Collaboration with the Nazis and specifically the voluntary recruitment of Norwegians to the Waffen SS.
The novel was voted Best Norwegian Crime Novel ever. Upon translation into English, by Don Bartlett, the novel was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Duncan Lawrie International Dagger.
The novel begins with a reference to a fable about how the robin first got the red feathers on its breast, when one of their number removed a thorn from the brow of the "crucified one" and drops of blood landed on the breast of the small bird.
The timeline of the novel moves forwards and backwards from the Nazi-led Norwegian front against the Soviet army in late 1944 to the modern day, culminating on 17 May 2000, during the first half of the novel. However, once most of the World War II back story has been told, the novel concentrates on the modern day events.
The President of the United States of America comes to Norway for a (fictional) high-level conference aimed at promoting the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. Policeman Harry Hole is assigned to security detail and treats a Secret Service agent in a toll booth as a potential assassin, shooting the agent when he fails to respond to a warning. The agent survives because he is wearing a bullet-proof vest, but the incident has to be covered up and Harry is promoted to the rank of Inspector.
World War II
The Nazi occupation of Norway is entering the final stages, though none of the Norwegian soldiers fighting on the German side are willing to accept that this is the case. During the Siege of Leningrad a small group of Norwegian Waffen SS volunteers who have been together for some time are manning trenches just a short distance from the western limits of the Soviet army. Details of their lives are given, mostly in conversation between the soldiers.
One of their number, a man called Daniel Gudeson, claims to have shot a Russian sniper in no man's land and goes into no man's land to bury him. This endears him to some of his colleagues, but causes others to dislike him. However, at the point of midnight on New Years' Eve, when Daniel - on watch with one of his colleagues - stands up to celebrate the New Year, he is shot through the head and killed. His body and face are covered up and he is laid to wait for a burial committee who take the body away later that day.
On the same night, another soldier, Sindre Fauke, disappears and is reported by his Watch colleague to have defected to the Russians. Oddly, a couple of days later a body appears in the trench, covered and waiting for the burial committee. When the soldiers investigate, it is the body of Daniel Gudeson which was known to have been removed earlier. This mystery remains unexplained until the climax of the novel.
A hand grenade lands in the trench and explodes, and, although the soldiers survive, they are wounded and hospitalised. Taken to a hospital in Vienna, one, who calls himself Uriah, falls in love with a nurse, who is being blackmailed by her supervisor. They elope, but are forced to return when they realize that they do not have the papers required to go to their initial destination; Paris. Their love somehow survives the war, but they are separated and eventually will live separate lives.
New Inspector, Harry Hole investigates a crime in which a very expensive Märklin rifle has been purchased and is being tested. In addition, a group of Neo-Nazis is suspected of plotting trouble, one member of which - Sverre Olsen - has recently had a trial against them collapse on a legal technicality, Harry himself having been involved in the investigation.
An elderly drunk is found murdered, his throat having been slit with almost surgical precision at the back of a bar where the Neo-Nazis are known to congregate. During the investigation, a man known only as "the Prince" is mentioned and Harry and his colleague, Ellen Gjelten, try to find out the identity of the Prince.
Harry, meanwhile, has met a colleague called Rakel with whom he has become infatuated. At a work party, he and Rakel talk openly and it becomes obvious that they are interested in each other. However, Rakel does not take the matter further as she is concerned by a custody battle of her son, Oleg, who is wanted by his Russian father, a matter that has actually been orchestrated by Rakel's superior who also wants to sleep with her.
Ellen, meanwhile, accidentally discovers the identity of the Prince, tries to call Harry, but fails to get through. She leaves a message on his answer phone but crucially neglects to name the Prince himself. On the way to her boyfriend's flat she is beaten to death with a baseball bat.
Her murderer, Sverre Olsen, is soon discovered by Harry and his new assistant, Halvorsen. However, when they prepare to arrest him, they discover that another senior Inspector, Tom Waaler, has tried to do so. Apparently, Olsen tried to shoot Waaler, prompting Waaler to kill Olsen in self defence. Harry's only link to the Prince has been lost.
Nevertheless, the murder of Rakel's superior - shot with the Märklin rifle at close range, along with an elderly woman - Signe Juul, the wife of a friend, also shot with the rifle - leads Harry to investigate the events of the Norwegian/Nazi collaborators, many of whom were imprisoned after the war as traitors. He is also led to follow a lead that suggests that the murderer has a split personality and that one personality is doing the killings - possibly without the knowledge of the other, such as in the story The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
As Rakel's father tells Harry that Signe Juul's husband, Even, was obsessed with Daniel Gudeson, other clues lead Harry to believe that he has discovered the murderer: Even Juul. However, when he goes to arrest Even Juul, he discovers that Even has apparently committed suicide, and Harry believes that Even discovered that his "other personality", Daniel Gudeson, had been committing the murders and that he had committed suicide in order to stop Daniel.
However, Harry realises that he was wrong when he stumbles across the journal of the actual murderer. He sees that the split personality route of his investigation was correct, but the murderer is not Even Juul. The murderer is obsessed with revenge after believing that the Norwegian Royal Family had betrayed the country by fleeing to England during the Nazi occupation, and then later condemning those who fought for the Nazis during the war.
The murderer also reveals the details behind the mysterious reappearance of Daniel Gudeson's body in the trenches during the war and the truth behind the defection of Sindre Fauke.
Finally, the murderer makes it clear in his journal that he intends to assassinate the Crown Prince of Norway at the Norwegian Constitution Day celebrations later that day (17 May). Harry rushes to prevent the assassination, managing to stop the attempt at almost the last second in a hotel room. To keep the assassination attempt out of the press - and to prevent any problems for the assassin's surviving family - Harry's success is covered up, much as his actions at the start of the book were.
The true identity of the Prince is revealed during the novel, although not to Harry, and the Prince continues to be a thorn in Harry's side in later books. In effect, this major theme makes the present book and the following two, "Nemesis" and "The Devil's Star", into a distinct 'trilogy' within the larger Harry Hole series.
The book has major implications for the series in introducing Rakel, who would become the great love of Harry's life, and her son Oleg who would come to regard Harry as his father, rather than his biological father in Russia from whom Rakel separated long ago, and to whom Harry would for his part become deeply attached. The ups and downs of Harry's relationship with Rakel would become a major theme in later books, often impacting substantially on the murder mysteries he investigates.
South African inaccuracy
In one of the book's subplots, Harry travels to South Africa to meet a dealer in clandestine arms, a white South African who is imprisoned and faces the death punishment for having killed two young black girls at a black township. The man is willing to provide vital information in exchange for Norway - which is on very good terms with South Africa's post-Apartheid government - bringing diplomatic pressure to bear on his behalf. Harry - who is nauseated by the man's manifest racism and whose entire investigation is concerned with the dark deeds of young neo-Nazis and old Nazi collaborators in Norway itself - takes the information but fails to keep his side of the deal. At the end of the book Harry gets a phone call from a black South African policeman he befriended, telling him that the arms dealer had been sentenced to death with no possibility of reprieve and thanking Harry for not having done anything to impede this outcome.
In fact, the above is contrary to the actual situation of post-Apartheid South Africa. Capital punishment in South Africa had been suspended already in 1990 and definitely abolished in 1995, and the last execution carried out by a South African government had been in 1989. Thus, in reality the arms dealer would not have faced capital punishment in 1999.
- Patrick Anderson (December 27, 2007). "Best Norwegian crime novel ever?". The Washington Post. The Seattle Times. Archived from the original on March 7, 2014. Retrieved March 7, 2014.
- John Mullan (April 25, 2014). "John Mullan on The Redbreast – Guardian book club". The Guardian. Archived from the original on June 1, 2014. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
- Though negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians had started in Norway in 1993 - hence the name "Oslo Agreement" - by 1999 the Norwegians were sidelined. In actuality, the 2000 Camp David Summit, held on US soil with no Norwegian participation, had much the same diplomatic role as the fictional summit mentioned in Nesbo's book.