His Own Man: Jo Nesbo by Barry Forshaw

Ian Rankin said in the Daily Record in 2012: “Scandinavian crime writers are not better than Scottish ones, they just have better PR.” If he’s right, Jo Nesbo has the best in the business. Perhaps the most forceful indicator of the current domination of the crime fiction scene by Scandinavians is the astonishing success of the Norwegian writer (and ex-footballer – and ex-rock star) Jo Nesbo. An indication of that success is the fact that films of his work have preceded the title with his name (e.g. Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters). Until recently, the strapline on his paperbacks was ‘The Next Stieg Larsson’, a soubriquet which (I have to admit) was mine – except that it wasn’t quite. I was trying to convey to newspaper readers that if they had avidly consumed everything by Larsson, Mankell and co., they should try the remarkably talented Nesbo. But I can’t really complain that my quote was tweaked slightly (Nesbo has since told me that, although his books are nothing like those of his late Swedish confrère, he didn’t mind the quote… success is success).

How do you say….?
I first met Nesbo several years ago (long before his megastar status) at a meal given to celebrate the UK translation of one of his books, and noticed that (as the wine flowed) the English and American guests around the table were anglicising both his name and that of his recovering alcoholic detective, Harry Hole – and when I tentatively suggested that perhaps we should be calling Jo something like ‘Yerr Nesbur’ and his detective ‘Harry Hurler’, he gave a wry smile and replied: ‘Well, strictly speaking, yes – but you’re not Scandinavians, and we learn to accept that our names will have… interesting pronunciations abroad.’
Ironically, with the belated issue of Nesbo’s first Harry Hole novel The Bat in the UK in 2012, readers were amused to discover that jokes about the mispronunciation of the protagonist’s named abound (the Australian coppers Harry works with in the book mostly call him ‘Harry Holy’.)
But The Bat is not the book with which English and American readers first discovered Nesbo. Books such as The Devil’s Star (2003), the lacerating The Redbreast (2000) and, more recently, the massively successful The Snowman (2010) established Nesbo as one of the most trenchant and idiosyncratic writers of modern crime fiction. Inevitably, of course, it is his formidable narrative skills which have made him such a ringer-of-tills. it’s interesting to note that an index of this success (in the UK at least) is the fact that certain market book stalls throughout the country have stock that consists of just one solitary writer, such is their level of popularity; it used to be the English writer Martina Cole, now it’s the Norwegian Jo Nesbo who fills the entire stall. But Nesbo’s appeal may also be attributed to the fact that his books appear to communicate salient, caustic facts about modern society, giving them a kind of added value alongside their considerable expertise as pieces of literary entertainment. By describing the sometimes seismic changes in Scandinavian society, Nesbo is perceived as throwing a spotlight on the dangerous, conflicting world which we all live in; and his books address unpalatable truths about aspects of society that are not being tackled in anything but crime fiction.

The Protean Mr Nesbo
The composer and lyricist Steven Sondheim has a line about ‘careering from career to career’, a notion that may well have been created for Jo Nesbo. As an athletic teenager, he made an auspicious debut in the Norwegian Premier League football team Molde, his mind full of dreams about playing for Tottenham Hotspur in England (the latter is still a team he follows). But catastrophe struck: he ripped the ligaments in both his knees, and was obliged to cast around for another way to earn his living. This second career was to be his first taste of humongous success; as a musician, Nesbo’s rock band, called ‘Di Derre’ (roughly: ‘Them There’), enjoyed healthy stints at the top of the Norwegian charts, and the band’s second album was a bestseller for several years. Nesbo’s skills also extended to the financial arena, but readers have cause to be grateful a long-haul flight which had Nesbo struggling over a book he had been commissioned to write (and had little enthusiasm for) about life on the road for a rock musician. Instead of writing about drugs and sexually available young women, he decided to try his hand at fiction and wrote a detective novel, submitting it pseudonymously (fearing that it would be rejected as ‘another crap book by a rock star’). That novel was The Bat Man (1997).

The Bat
There is a nigh-legendary lost Lon Chaney silent film, London After Midnight, which has become the holy Grail for film collectors. All that still exists are several fascinating stills, and film aficionados yearn for the day when a copy turns up in someone’s garage. Hopes, however, are fading in the 21st century, as such a piece of serendipity is beginning to seem increasingly unlikely. But something vaguely similar has happened for English-speaking admirers of the most commercially successful of all current Scandinavian crime writers, Jo Nesbo. While British and American readers had long taken the writer’s dogged alcoholic detective Harry Hole to their hearts and followed his alternating the brilliant and shambolic career through a series of books, there was one appearance by the detective accessible only to those who read Norwegian or other Scandinavian languages: Harry’s first appearance in the book mentioned above, The Bat Man. It was perhaps inevitable that with the megaselling success of such recent Nesbo novels as The Snowman (optioned by Martin Scorsese) that the writer’s product-hungry UK publishers would belatedly dust off this earlier book for our delectation (Harry had first come to the attention of UK readers with a later adventure, The Devil’s Star). And here, finally, was that first novel, translated by Nesbo’s customary English alter ego, Don Bartlett (something of a star in his own right, with a variety of Scandinavian writers queuing up to be translated by him).

Hole in the Chronology
The book is now simply called The Bat (no doubt to avoid confusion with a certain Dark Knight of Gotham city – although Nesbo has told me that he was influenced by the graphic novels writer Frank Miller, who turned Batman into an ageing semi-fascist bruiser). English-speaking readers however, were first treated to The Devil’s Star in 2005 (two years after its appearance in its original language) and instantly took the troubled, wry Norwegian copper Harry Hole to their hearts, warts and all. That book, set during a heatwave which has the residents of Oslo suffering, begins with a woman discovering small black lumps in her cooking – it is, in fact, congealed blood dripping from a body in the flat above (right from the start of his career, Nesbo has demonstrated a gift for the unpleasant but plausible detail). Chief of Police Møller is reluctant to call upon the best detective he has, Harry Hole, as the latter’s dependence on the bottle has made him unreliable. He assigns detective Tom Waaler to work with his erratic star policeman, but Harry is to discover that Tom is not all that he seems – and may have some involvement with the murder of a colleague. The body in the attic flat, a naked young woman whose corpse has been mutilated, has a pentagram discovered beneath her eyelid. As well as the sharply observed grotesque detail, always a Nesbo speciality, we’re given a picture of a police force stretched to its limits and a society struggling to deal with seismic change – although all of this is couched storytelling of the first order.

Pressing The Buttons
Similarly, Nemesis pushed the customary thriller buttons (the book begins with an explosive bank robbery) while focusing on the demands of character: Harry’s drunken sexual tryst with an ex-girlfriend ends with her death, while Harry has no memory of the events leading up to this catastrophe. Then he begins to receive a series of threatening e-mails. Along with all this, intriguingly, there were indications in the book that Nesbo’s career was moving in a different direction – a direction that has sometimes proved controversial. His novels were becoming bigger and more ambitious, but it could hardly be argued that the new international focus (to blossom in full with the next novel) was something new in the writer’s work – after all, the very first Harry Hole novel had his detective in a foreign country. But with The Snowman (2010) there was a noticeable finessing of aspects of Nesbo’s strategies: a more ambitious reach and a more obvious relationship with the commercial blockbuster thriller. But any feelings that the sharp individual character of the earlier books was becoming diluted in the process were swept away by the astonishing success of the book, which proved to be the novel which incontrovertibly placed Nesbo at the very top of the tree in terms of Scandinavian crime fiction sales. More recently we have had The Son, a non-Harry Hole novel. What next for the hardworking Mr Nesbo? We’ll see…

Barry’s books include Euro Noir, Nordic Noir and Death in a Cold Climate; he is currently writing Brit Noir.