Headhunters, by Jo Nesbo
Headhunters is the most recent offering from Scandi wonderboy Jo Nesbo. A departure from the Harry Hole series, it is a standalone that introduces us to successful headhunter Roger Brown. Brown is the best in the business; his word is his client’s bond, his recommendations of candidates enjoying a 100% success rate. As if that were not enough, he also enjoys a lucrative sideline as an art thief. As should be expected from a man in his position, he has acquired all the trappings of success; the glamorous wife, the luxury home, the exorbitantly priced possessions.
His problems begin, however, when he encounters Clas Greve, a man easily Brown’s intellectual equal, but beyond that, a former special forces soldier and headhunter in the more classic sense. In addition to these attributes, Greve possesses one of the most sought after paintings on the planet, which Brown swiftly decides to liberate.
While in reality art theft is a time-honoured form of larceny, committing it to fiction has traditionally resulted in a sense of the absurd, and Headhunters is no different; there is something intrinsically unbelievable about cat-burglars pitting their wits against elaborate alarm systems in opulent mansions. As such, Headhunters has a whiff for the most part of the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and in the less plausible sequences, the ’Allo ’Allo subplot of “The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.” Of course, credibility is not the sole mark of quality, and Nesbo weaves a tall but entertaining tale throughout.
As a lead, Roger Brown begins the book as cool, analytical, obnoxious and ego-centric, teetering on the brink of sociopathy. His concern for human emotion extends to an understanding of how it can be used to manipulate, and his only significant concerns are the acquisition of wealth, exercising of power and protecting his marriage. Brown’s love for his wife is not the fulfilling, inherently positive passion of the classical hero however. Instead, his wife is something of a high-value commodity he was fortunate to come by, which must be jealously guarded at all times.
His soulless approach extends to his clients, whom he enjoys breaking down using advanced interrogation techniques. He is a master of his craft, and for this reason, combined with his sophisticated tastes, fits neatly into the Hannibal Lecter anti-hero mould. His character is, however, subject to something of a physical and psychological re-birth during the mid-section of the book, allowing Nesbo to have his cake and eat it; teeing up classic villain-on-villain duels in the early stages, while making Brown more sympathetic in the second half in order to ramp up the tension.
Nesbo has never shrunk away from gory detail, and Headhunters is another case in point. Gunshot wounds are covered in depth, the act of sex is described in resolutely biological and un-erotic detail, and during one scene Brown finds himself ‘up to his neck in it,’ in a manner reminiscent of an early scene from Slumdog Millionaire.
For a book with such a small cast, Headhunters also manages to weave a complex tale, rounding off with an abundance of twists which demand focus from the reader at all times, albeit revisited at length during a denouement which could have stood some paring down.
Nesbo is a truly formidable talent, and while Headhunters may not be the absolute cream of his particular crop, it still deservedly garnered the 2008 Norwegian Book Prize for Best Novel of the Year. This is a solidly entertaining yarn, benefiting from a strong leading character and a well-worked storyline. Keep them coming, Jo.