When I worked in I.T. I would occasionally be approached by recruitment agencies who wanted to put me forward for different jobs in the industry. But they were never as classy as the private head-hunting company Alfa run by Roger Brown in Jo Nesbo’s latest book, Headhunters. Alfa is located in a twenty-five room building in the centre of Oslo and finds chief executives and other key staff for prestigious corporations. It does not advertise these positions but uses its intelligence and contacts in order to make approaches to likely candidates.
The book opens with Roger Brown (does this work as a Scandinavian name? Apparently it does!), interviewing a candidate for a Chief Executive role of a company which makes GPS equipment. We learn that Roger uses the FBI interrogation technique as published by Inbau, Reid and Buckley. The candidate for the job, Jeremias Lander, doesn’t stand a chance under the “machine gun in a world of pea-shooters” of the FBI processes, and Roger tells him that while he’s not suitable for the post in question he will be able to place him in a couple of years time. For Roger’s reputation is based on getting things right. One duff candidate offered to a blue-chip company and his own job will be on the slide.
We soon learn that Roger has more than one string to his bow however. He has learned that the successful executives who pass through his office tend to be art-collectors. During the softer parts of the interview he chats about art and usually discovers that the candidate are quite pleased to be able to talk about something more close to home like their art collection. They don’t realise that Roger is a determined art-thief as well as a head-hunter. He has a network of contacts who help him in his criminal activities and makes good use of them. Not only this, his stunningly beautiful wife Diana (she had to be stunningly beautiful didn’t she) runs an art gallery in the best part of Oslo which provides Roger with many useful contacts.
The scene moves to a private view evening at Diana’s gallery. The gallery is full of “rich, successful financiers, celebrities of the right sort, actresses, writers and politicians”. Diana introduces Roger to one of the guests, Clas Greve, the co-owner of a company which has just been bought out, leaving him with a considerable fortune but also with unwelcome time on his hands. Roger sees him as an ideal candidate for the job he has just been interviewing for and arranges to meet him and exchanges business cards.
Clas Greve turns out to be perfectly capable of surviving the FBI interview techniques, and during the interview reveals his interest in expensive art – letting slip that he has a Peter Paul Reubens painting which was lost during the Second World War. Roger rapidly realises that he has not only a prime candidate for the post he is trying to fill, but also a painting of incalculable value waiting to be stolen.
The scene is set for one of the most intriguing stories I have read in a long time. Needless to say, not all is as it seems with Clas Greve, but the same could also be said about Roger. Roger seems to have met his match in Greve, but Jo Nesbo, being a crime-writer in the classic mould, provides subtle clues to guide his readers through this breathless romp via episodes of theft, murder and intrigue – with plenty of cross and double-cross to go with it.
This is a stylish read, in the best traditions of crime-writing which is as you might expect from a writer like Jo Nesbo who has won many so many prizes for his earlier books, particularly the “Harry Hole” series of detective novels. He does not shrink from graphic detail of the more violent incidents but is a master of restraint when it comes to providing clues to guide the reader through his complex plotting – you have to be alert to find out what is really going on.
Nesbo is an interesting man – not only a writer but a musician too. His website has a short Q&A section on it and one of the answer says much about the benefits of coming from a bookish family:
“What were your favourite books as a child? Were your parents keen readers?”
I come from a reading, story-telling family. My mother was a librarian and my father used to spend every afternoon reading in the sitting room. He told stories too, long, familiar narratives told so well that we wanted to hear them again and again. The first novel my father read to me was Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.
And isn’t story telling the essence of good writing? I read plenty of books where “story” takes second place to style or even more nebulous characteristics. Its good sometimes to return to a book where story is all, particularly when its told by a master like Jo Nesbo.