Jo Nesbo’s Killing Moon Is Equal Parts Brutal and Boring

Is it time to retire the trope of the drunk, socially awkward detective who somehow solves ultra-violent crimes against one-dimensional women?

A book with a vibrant yellow cover hovers in front of dimly lit shelves packed with books
Harry Hole is back in Nesbo’s latest detective novel, for better or for worse. Penguin Random House

Grizzled, hard-living, socially awkward detectives were once a staple of my media diet, and so I didn’t pick up the latest in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series as a novice. I’m hardened. I was there in the beginning when the first novel featuring his rebellious and brilliant Norwegian police officer, The Bat, came out in 1997. I was likewise there for the release of Cockroaches, The Snowman, The Leopard, Phantom, Police and The Thirst. That’s two decades of literary commitment, so it’s not easy for me to acknowledge that Killing Moon is so cruelly, brutally misogynistic and brimming with every savage cliche of crime fiction that it’s barely readable.

Hole is an alcoholic chain-smoker who routinely insults his peers and alienates his colleagues, framed as the ultimate outsider on the hunt for justice. His appeal over twenty years was his genuine, pure desire to solve crimes for the sake of giving peace to the families of the victims and to prevent further harm from coming to those who are vulnerable. He’s awkward, he’s a bit of an ass and he has self-destructive tendencies that threaten to ruin his personal and professional lives. In other words, he’s exactly the sort of character who appeals to a writer.

But the brutal rape and murder of young, beautiful women as exploitative entertainment has become a hot topic—as it should be. Nearly ten pages into Killing Moon, I wondered whether Nesbo had always depicted women in such a cruel, hateful way. Did I overlook it for two whole decades?

What’s more likely, I think, is that after writing thirteen books with more than 55 million copies sold, Nesbo (a former economist) has identified a formula that sells. So we get the brutal scalping of a young girl, which is going to be solved by an alcoholic mess of a detective who somehow scrapes his ugly face off the bar to magically solve a crime because, despite all evidence to the contrary, he’s still a genius. It’s the formula.

In past interviews, Nesbo has said that it’s important that he depicts the murders of women in his fiction because it’s an honest reflection of what happens in the real world. I’d counter with this question: Where is the value in perpetuating the idea of women as victims, in need of a mediocre old man to play hero?

I loved reading my grandmother’s collection of Agatha Christie novels with their wonderfully whimsical depiction of Hercule Poirot. I loved Nancy Drew. I loved Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta. I loved Karin Slaughter and Tess Gerritsen’s novels. There’s a formula there, too—one built around the visceral thrill of discovering new threads, trying to work out how each one ties into the whole tangled knot, and following in the footsteps of someone eminently braver and bolder than me. There are crime novels in which the protagonist is as fascinating as the plot so that no matter how mundane the crime may be, we want to spend our time with those bleakly funny, insatiably curious problem-solvers.

I wanted to love Killing Moon, too. I wanted Harry Hole to come stumbling out of the bar in Los Angeles, blinded by the sunlight and shocked back into the real world. I wanted him to solve the murders, reconcile with his old police mates and single-handedly clean up the streets of Oslo. But I am a woman and I read the news. I walk the streets on my own, and I don’t find it entertaining or intriguing to read about girls getting drugged and murdered before having their scalps sliced open. I don’t find it genuine or relatable when Nesbo’s elderly female character—women in Killing Moon are either young, slender and dead or old, childless workaholics—dismisses #MeToo as a movement in which women tried to protect their own asses by not reporting Harvey Weinstein earlier. I find it sickening, in fact.

Here’s a taste of that, and if this isn’t the author projecting his women-hating fantasies upon his characters, then what is it? In a Los Angeles bar, Harry meets Lucille, who gives us a takedown of Uma Thurman that has little relevance to the storyline:

“Did you read how everyone ‘praised’ her after she came forward and spoke about how Weinstein, that pig, had tried it on with her? Wanna know what I think? I think when you’re Uma Thurman, millionaire actor, and you’ve known what Weinstein’s been up to without blowing the whistle, that when you finally step forward to kick a man when he’s down, who other less powerful and braver women have brought down, that you shouldn’t be praised. When, for years, you’ve tacitly allowed all those young, hopeful actors to walk into Weinstein’s’ office alone because you with all your millions, by speaking out might—might—miss out on yet another million-dollar role, then I think you should be publicly whipped and spat upon.”

Perhaps some readers simply don’t mind Nesbo’s description of young women as “parasitic bimbos on the hunt for a suitable host” because, as he asserts, it’s traditional. Back in 2020, Nesbo told The Guardian that “Violence against women is a problem in society—it is something we should talk about. I would be more worried if there was an absence of violence against women in fiction because it’s a problem in real life…Harry Hole borrows a lot from the tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel, and with that comes certain traditions.”

Maybe someone needs to remind Nesbo that storytelling in fiction allows us to explore alternate worlds. It lets us stand in the shoes of characters who are both like us and entirely different so we can expand our thinking and take on new perspectives. Storytelling that relies on tired cliches that frame women as hapless gold-digging victims who are lucky to have an ancient, alcoholic ex-cop on their case is a literary tradition we can do without. Jo Nesbo’s Killing Moon Is Equal Parts Brutal and Boring