‘Phantom’ is the best novel yet from Norway’s Nesbo

“Phantom” by Jo Nesbo (Knopf, $25.95, 378 pages)

Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo emerged on the international best-seller scene with his novel “The Snowman,” which featured the troubled Oslo police officer Harry Hole. He followed that with the equally successful “The Leopard,” and now brings us “Phantom,” actually his sixth novel featuring Hole.

Having read these last three, I would say that Nesbo keeps getting better; his latest is his best. Each book follows a form of building suspense as Harry tries to find the murderer. Nesbo moves among an array of characters, tracing their movements, creating back story to deepen their humanity, while adding possible motives for murder. Meanwhile, his intricate plotting leaves us guessing until the end as to how things will turn out and who is guilty.

In “Phantom,” Harry returns to Oslo from Hong Kong, where he had fled after the harrowing events of “The Leopard.” Why care about a young man found dead in a drug dealer’s apartment? Because Oleg, the son of the woman Harry loved, lost and still loves, has been arrested for the murder. He has come back to prove that Oleg is innocent.

However, he is barred from the police force and must use former contacts and threats to get information he needs. He discovers a maze of corruption as he explores the city’s drug culture and looks for Dubai, aka the Phantom, who is the kingpin behind the proliferation of a new drug, violin, that is more powerful in its allure than heroin.

As with other Nesbo novels, Harry encounters many roadblocks and wrong turns and nearly gets killed several times as he pursues the truth. Along the way, Nesbo displays his knowledge of drugs, even offering a history of the development of heroin.

While “The Snowman” is creepy, and “The Leopard” a bit over-the-top, “Phantom” is a more balanced, surer effort. Readers come to mysteries to be entertained by a good story, with plausible plot twists that surprise, and interesting characters that are morally complex — human. Nesbo’s latest more than satisfies these expectations. Regular readers of his books may be shocked at the ending.