Norwegian author Jo Nesbo is better known for his detective series featuring alcoholic but persistent detective Harry Hole. In Headhunters, Nesbo brings to life a surprisingly self-aware character who is equal parts pragmatic and amoral. Part mystery, part thriller, the novel takes a series of unexpected turns that are often only fully realized in the retrospective. The extreme rationality of the main character, Roger Brown, will be in strong contrast to the visceral reaction that most readers will have to him.
The plot is far less important to this novel than the characterization of Roger Brown, an elite headhunter for CEO candidates. Brown lives a lavish lifestyle that is beyond the means of his day job. In order to supplement his income, he dabbles in high end art theft utilizing his interviews to case prospective thefts and persons owning valuable paintings. Currently looking for the right candidate for a growing Norwegian GPS company, Brown meets the ideal person, Clas Greve, through his wife.
Greve is also the owner of an incredible painting thought to be lost or destroyed. Brown decides to both put Greve forward for the CEO position and rob the man of his extraordinarily valuable artwork. In truth, Brown walks into an elaborate trap. While Brown is able to foil the initial plans that Greve had for him, what follows is a lengthy chase that is perhaps a bit too contrived for the reader to swallow entirely.
There is little point, however, to argue whether the plot is good or not — it is — because the plot is a vehicle for introducing you to Brown who is fascinating. The first person writing perspective is brilliantly used to explain all the events through Brown’s complete lack of morality or empathy. When considering whether to steal artwork, it is a matter of whether the artwork is valuable enough not what implications it has ethically or how it may impact the victim. Brown is concerned with preserving his lifestyle and aura of wealth regardless of the extremes to which that takes him.
The prestige of his lifestyle dictates most of his personal interactions. Brown is unable to remember the name of his receptionist and is unperturbed by this mostly because she is well beneath his socioeconomic status and offers no chance to elevate himself further. Based on the designer suit or shoes, he sizes up the value of those passing by him on the street and whether he will deign to acknowledge them. Women are, for the most part, objects to adorn powerful men’s arms in his worldview. Brown is at the top of his game as a headhunter. He knows this and it is the core of his self worth.
His wife, Diana, is an exception to most of this. She constitutes the least rational part of Brown’s characterization. He is devoted to her despite her “requirements” for a lavish lifestyle leading to his illicit activity. Throughout the book, he wonders why she could be attracted to him given his short stature and modest appearance.
Easily the most interesting part of this relationship revolves around Diana’s desire for a baby. Brown is adamantly opposed to this for purely selfish reasons: he wants Diana to himself. He even convinces her to have an abortion simply because he does not want a child. The transactional aspect of their relationship (in return she gets to have an expensive art gallery) will surely disgust some readers. While both Diana and Roger seem to care about one another, there is a heartless underpinning to their relationship. They both love the status the other provides (Diana gets a lavish life while Roger has a beautiful wife) in a way that can supersede the love they feel for the other person. Disruptions to that lifestyle are viewed with great wariness.
Roger Brown is a unique character. Not only is he cold, calculating and exceedingly logical but he is fully aware of that and accepts it as an integral part of who he is. For those who love mysteries or thrillers, the chase scene, which encompasses the latter half of the book, will be fulfilling as will the way that Nesbo pieces things together in the end. There are no loose ends left to your imagination but the pieces don’t quite fit together until Nesbo guides you through it.
The pacing is breakneck and, at 265 pages, it is a brief book, which coupled with the partially outlandish plot twists are the only things that keep this book from perfection. The characters are not loveable but they are intriguing in a way that many other author’s creations are not. Read this book for the thrill ride but love it for the thought-provoking personalities.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Headhunters by Jo Nesbo