Changing the Stakes: When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted
“Ah, now that’s the life!” is, I’m 99.9-percent positive, a sentiment which no one, anywhere, will ever utter about me... which is fine. (Hey, I don’t know anyone about whom I’d say that, either). You have to live a whole different sort of existence to inspire in others such wistful longing, and most of us, well... don’t.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving, and even that which might look at first (or second or even third) glance to be the perfect situation, often turns out to be something quite different.
In the end, how close we come to achieving our own ideals in life is as much down to the choices we make as it is to stuff like fate and luck... which, in Jo Nesbø’s brilliant stand-alone thriller, Headhunters, turns out to involve some pretty ballsy choices, indeed.
Roger Brown wouldn’t, under other circumstances, inspire much awe, admiration, or jealousy on his own merits. A smaller man (about 5’6” if he stretches) hitting middle-age, with very ordinary looks, he’s the sort of chap who has no trouble blending into the scenery, but for one thing... well, make that two things; his wife Diana is a drop-dead-gorgeous, supermodel-type, and he is phenomenally good at his job.
Roger, you see, is a corporate headhunter, and he’s among the best in the business. (His firm doesn’t handle “small” clients unless they’re rolling in capital, and Roger handles only the most-lucrative requests for top managerial positions at the best firms.) He’s at the top of his game, and everyone who’s anyone in Norway (or Europe, for that matter) knows his name and reputation, “the headhunter who has never nominated a candidate for a job he did not get”.
From the outside, Roger’s life seems in line with his success; his wardrobe and grooming are impeccable, he and Diana have a fabulous home in an elite neighborhood, and luxurious, late-model cars are parked in their garage. Diana’s pet project is equally-glamorous--an über-high-end art gallery, which Roger bought to give her something to do (and as repayment for something else which it’s probably better to let you read about in the book).
Remember the bit about deceptive appearances, though? It applies here; their lifestyle--the mansion and only-the-best of everything--is way over even their limit, and Diana’s exclusive gallery is a massive money pit, all expenditures with next to zero in revenues.
But, where most people would probably opt to downsize a bit, Roger has come up with another--rather novel, when you think about it--solution: he steals pricey works of art from his connections, then fences them to fund his money shortages. (Yes, really.)
It’s risky, of course... although Roger does seem to enjoy the thrill, the danger, of it all. (Clearly he enjoys it more than the thought of letting his wife know they’re seriously strapped for cash; a woman like that, who could have anyone, but chose him, well... he figures the thefts are worth the risk.)
Of course, what always happens when greed is involved eventually happens here, too; the irresistible “big score” inevitably comes along. After being drug to yet another money-sucking art opening at Diana’s gallery, Roger winds up meeting his great white whale... Clas Greve, a recently-retired CEO who’s just relocated to Norway, and would be absolutely perfect for a plum CEO job Roger’s trying to fill. When their conversation turns to interests, and Clas describes uncovering in his inherited house a priceless painting by Rubens--one which has been missing since World War II--it seems like fate has finally smiled on Roger. The end to all his money woes is in sight... if only he can orchestrate everything (particularly Clas) into the proper position at the right time.
Things are never as simple as we talk ourselves into believing they’ll be, though, as Roger (rather unsurprisingly) discovers. Yes, he manages to get Clas interested in the job, and yes, he succeeds at breaking into the man’s house (when Roger knows Clas is otherwise occupied), and yes, he finds the painting. Problem is, he finds something else, too--the one thing he never dreamed he’d see there... which means everything has changed, never to be the same again.
To say any more (even though SO much more has yet to happen at this point in the story), would be to deprive you of the joys--the OMG! roller-coaster thrills--of reading Headhunters for yourselves. All you really need to know is that there are far more layers to Clas than it originally seems... which also holds true for everyone else in the book (from Roger to Diana to their respective associates and friends). Surprises, clever twists? Headhunters keeps them coming, left, right, and center.
One other thing you should know--particularly if your sense of humor skews to the dark, and you revel in a certain genre of movie (think the couple of really awesome [no, not the lame ones] Tarantino flicks and pretty much anything, ever, by the Coen brothers)--is that Nesbø’s tale is a treasure trove of razor-sharp wit and brilliantly-cutting observations, housed in one of the wildest shoot-em-up crime novels out there. (And if you’re worried now that this one is all style and no substance, don’t be; Headhunters is one seriously-smart suspenseful read. Just because Nesbø lets his characters be and do their most-outrageous best or worst [and hoo-boy, is it ever out-there, sometimes!], it’s always a believable sort of extreme, entirely in-character--especially once you finally understand all the hows, whys, and wherefores.)
I’ve read several top-notch Scandinavian mysteries and thrillers over the past few years, and with Headhunters, Jo Nesbø earns a prize place not only among his fellow Scandinavians, but among all thriller writers currently out there.
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