The Son, Jo Nesbø
Publisher: Vintage Digital
Tags: Mystery, Thriller, Suspense, Crime, Revenge, Redemption, Love, Contemporary Setting
Length: 514 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
Purchase At: amazon.com
The author of the internationally best-selling Harry Hole series now gives us an electrifying stand-alone novel set amid Oslo’s hierarchy of corruption, from which one very unusual young man is about to propel himself into a mission of brutal revenge.
Sonny Lofthus, in his early thirties, has been in prison for the last dozen years: serving time for crimes he didn’t commit. In exchange, he gets an uninterrupted supply of heroin—and the unexpected stream of fellow prisoners seeking out his uncanny abilities to soothe and absolve. His addiction started when his father committed suicide rather than be exposed as a corrupt cop, and now Sonny is the center of a vortex of corruption: prison staff, police, lawyers, a desperate priest—all of them focused on keeping him stoned and jailed, and all of them under the thumb of Oslo’s crime overlord, the Twin. When Sonny learns some long-hidden truths about his father he makes a brilliant escape, and begins hunting down the people responsible for the hideous crimes he’s paid for. But he’s also being hunted, by the Twin, the cops, and the only person who knows the ultimate truth that Sonny is seeking. The question is, what will he do when they’ve cornered him?
**I’ve tried to be careful but treat as a spoiler review**
Once upon a time I read a whole lot of crime/thriller fiction. I still enjoy a good revenge, retribution plot. In any medium. Some of my favourite movies are centred around that very theme – The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kill Bill, Taken, Payback, The Road to Perdition, Mad Max, the list goes on. To be blunt, I enjoy seeing someone paying for being, well, an epic arsehole. The Son gives me a very satisfying payback read. I also come from Australia and we have a bit of hero worship of people who go rogue and stick it to the man, or fight back – just think Ned Kelly. There are contemporary counterparts of a more… colourful nature, Chopper Read for one. We have a cultural fascination with people on the roguish side and Sonny Lofthus was the singularly most polite redemptive serial killer I’ve encountered. And just like the people who encounter him in this book, I plain like/love the guy. I was cheering for him but the deeper he got into the seedy underbelly – more like the upper class – of Oslo, the more the story unfolded, the more I had no clue as to how Sonny could come out alive which had me on the edge of my seat.
The official blurb tells us that Sonny Lofthus has been in jail for twelve years, since he was eighteen and he’s now thirty. The truth is, from sixteen, when he was still a minor and in personal pain, Sonny became addicted to heroin and was incarcerated. He took on other people’s crimes in exchange for (better quality and abundant) heroin. That equated to over twelve years. More than half of Sonny’s entire life is spent institutionalised. While some found him to be teenage-like, I say he’s someone who has been jailed, sedated, and lost track of current behaviour and technology.
‘I have some contacts, but I don’t know where they live so I thought I would look them up in the phone book.’
‘The phone book?’ one of the girls snorted. ‘You can just look them up on the Net.’
‘I can do that?’ the young man said.
‘Are you for real?!’ she laughed.
His policeman father’s apparent suicide, his mother’s subsequent depressive spiral into alcohol and drugs, and finally death, created an addict. The A grade student, the promising wrestler, the son who was part of a loving family, was no more. Until another inmate, Johannes, confesses he was involved in Ab Lofthus’ death. After the confession the cancer-riddled Johannes is asked to help Sonny. Johannes, who trusted Sonny’s father and likes Sonny, agrees. He’s old, he’s been a long-term model prisoner, he cleans the entire prison. Johannes has keys, access, and trust, and nothing to lose; he’s dying but the Son has absolved him so there aren’t any repercussions that can hurt now.
You know this book is about redemption and revenge. From the confession to the absolver – from Johannes to Sonny – things are not as they seemed. About his father pulling the trigger, about being coerced into writing a suicide note. Perhaps Ab Lofthus wasn’t the mole and disgraced officer he was purported to be. It’s powerful enough to motivate a son go cold turkey, gain some of his strength back, and seek revenge.
Once Sonny breaks out of the purpose-built, hi-tech Staten prison, he sets about taking out anyone who was involved with his father’s death, as well as murders pinned on him. You learn of more people who are involved in crimes that are linked to Ab’s death and to Sonny, how endemic the corruption is, how high-reaching. The book keeps you wondering who can be trusted. There are assistant prisoner governors, commissioners, police, an old-time detective not long from retiring, his new partner who wants to get into law, a lawyer, a prison chaplain, a taxi driver, people within a residential house for addicts, the Ila Centre, dog breeders… and so on… who litter the pages of The Son. The way it’s delivered is what makes the story so very good. How everything and everyone is tied in together, and there is quite the cast and intricate plotting. It takes a good writer to do what Jo Nesbo does in The Son. The book is given several perspectives throughout. Where Sonny is, interactions he has, being placed inside the mind of the person he has just shot, stabbed, or has left dying from each choice of revenge he exacts. Not to mention the other people he interacts with in an almost Robin Hood-esque manner. The book is dark and graphic, it has mystic and spiritual undertones, bear that in mind before reading.
Never the loquacious type, Sonny remains quite enigmatic throughout the book. You are fed just the right amount to charm and endear so you support a vigilante killer. Just enough for you to sympathise with how he’s feeling, understand why he’s doing what he is. How he’s seen through other’s eyes and why they all like him so much. And they do. Like him so much – unless he wants them dead. It’s inspired writing that the (anti) hero’s POV is often via other’s eyes – like twelve year old Markus who lives across the road from Sonny’s childhood home. The home is still his and has had all required utilities and bills paid for, yet Sonny has been jailed and near comatose for a long time. Markus is an interesting narrator and his romanticised views of Sonny are innocent but telling in a very dark book. There are many people who fill in the blanks about Sonny Lofthus – from the prison chaplain, Per Vollen, to Gilberg, a junkie who lives under a bridge because the Ila Centre has ghosts, to Martha, who heads the Ila Centre up, to Pelle, the taxi driver – a HUGE shout out to Pelle, one of the best secondary characters of any book.
While there are several viewpoints, probably the main narrative is that of Chief Inspector Simon Kefas. Kefas, who keeps being cast aside for Kripos (think FBI) to take over the lead of investigations of all the dead bodies mounting up in and around Oslo. Kefas is close to retirement and incredibly tough and methodical, but he’s no stranger to fractured people and relationships. He is far from black and white about human nature. He was once Ab Lofthus’ best friend and they were on the force together so he has an emotional investment in this case. Nevertheless, he is a good detective, if not flawed in his own right. Kefas injects light into dark when he thinks of his younger wife, Else, but, still, his viewpoint is often melancholy and resigned – after all, it is a noir read.
Although The Son is not a romance, interestingly, it is a kind of ode to a warts-and-all love. Sometimes people take vows seriously and stay through the bad as well as the good. Some people fall for/ love the unlikeliest of partners, how easily that can happen and often does in real life. The love is varied – Kefas and his wife, Else, who is going blind. Posthumously, Ab and his wife Helene. Sonny and the person he falls for. The love of a son for his father, and father of his son, and I’m not just talking about Sonny and Ab Lofthus when I say that. The bonds of some friendships.
I’ve brushed over other threads and components – such as Norwegian social commentary and mystical/preternatural/spiritual elements related to Sonny. I can’t cover everything and you really do have to read the book to take from it what you will. There’s also the hunt for the mysterious Twin, the head of crime in the region, and the mystery of the mole, a paid police rat. Then there are Sonny’s manners. How polite he is, even when he’s about to kill you.
It had to be his crazy brain clinging to this last straw. Because there was nothing else, nothing but this foolish hope in a dog kennel in a forest at night: that the guy who had abducted him was telling the truth.
‘Thank you so much,’ the guy said and stuck the pistol into the waistband of his trousers.
Thank you so much?
If I read a book, any book – romance, crime, horror – that ventures outside the construct and legalities of polite society, then I want, expect, it to be done with passion and bravado. The Son fits that requirement. Sonny made me worry about him. Care for him – his eyes, his voice, but primarily his belief in his father and justice. Simon made me care. And people just don’t get shot and die in this book. Oh no, you live in their skin as they’re dying, and it’s gruesome, but this is a book about retribution and I’m not looking for apologist writing, I wanted to experience the payback. I did.
I know this author has a huge following of his Harry Hole detective series but I’m not much of a series reader so I’m not sure if I’ll read them. However, this book was a standalone and I wanted something like the books I used to love before the romance/queer fiction bug bit. Crime. Thriller. Revenge tropes. The Son delivered what I desperately needed and I’ll be reading more standalone books by Jo Nesbo. If you like a graphic noir/ payback/ atonement book – is that even a genre? – then look no further than The Son. It’s gripping, it’s well written, it has flawed characters that I revelled in, it’s clever with as much meaning as you choose to take from it. The setting, Oslo, is wonderful and adds another dimension. Crank up some Depeche Mode and Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and dust off your Discman – cheers to you, Sonny – and tune into The Son. Stellar noir reading. Dive in and enjoy – 5 Stars!