Nils Nordberg’s fingers work quickly. An old hand at rolling his own cigarettes, the 72-year-old Norwegian crime historian, essayist and dramatist takes a pinch of tobacco, drizzles it on to the paper, a little twist here, a little twirl there and there it is — a neat and narrow roll-up. “Traditionally, a fiction writer should have a pipe in his mouth but everybody now is becoming more healthy, writers and even their detectives,” says Nils Nordberg, not entirely approvingly, as he sits on the Plaza steps at the India Habitat Centre. “But I’m not a crime fiction writer. I write about crime, so I can smoke,” he adds.
Nordberg has been president of Rivertonklubben, the Norwegian Crime Writers’ Association and has edited and published several anthologies of crime short stories. On his first visit to India, the prolific Norwegian is at the Hindustan Times Crime Writers Festival and is happy to talk up a storm about Nordic Noir, Scandinavian and British crime television shows, not to mention his favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes.
To listen to Nordberg speak about the books and radio plays that made their impact on him over the years is to get a sneak peek into the history of the genre. “There was a popular magazine in Norway, sort of like a ‘penny dreadful’, that published adventures of master detective Knut Gribb, a fictional police detective. I was also glued to the Francis Durbridge BBC radio shows. But it was The Hound of Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle that made a significant impact,” says Nordberg.
He had no intention of becoming a crime historian but in 1966, a young Nordberg decided to enter a television quiz contest. “You chose your own subject and you could win up to 10,000 Norwegian kroner, which would last me for a year. I was a student then. I won the quiz. Twice. And people got the wrong impression that I knew everything about crime fiction because I knew everything about Sherlock Holmes,” he says.
Like every genre, detective fiction is not without its politics. Crime is the prism through which a writer can look at the darkness in society, in cultures and people. So what does crime in Scandinavia, trapped as it is in stereotypes of barren, stark landscapes, of a cold, isolated people tell us about that society? “Crime writers will most often ask themselves, ‘what am I scared of?’ There are gruesome things that happen in fiction but you have to read them as things that writers are anxious about, a possible reality but not necessarily a current one. So there is pedophilia, kidnappings, sexual abuse, things that were kept under cover. Today, the plots include terrorism and racism because the number of immigrants has increased,” says Nordberg, who also mentions that a look through the Norwegian newspaper op-ed sections will reveal the common Norwegian’s xenophobia and fear of Muslim immigrants from south Asia and north Africa. “But look at Anders Breivik (sole perpetrator of the 2011 attack in Norway), he represented himself and his fantasies and it shook Norway in a way no amount of crime fiction could have,” he adds.
Apart from speaking at the upcoming Jaipur Literature Festival, Nordberg’s present tasks include preparing the first complete annotated edition of the Sherlock Holmes library of crime fiction in Norwegian. “I started reading Holmes when I was 12 and his way of reasoning himself appealed to me. He’s the smartest devil in the room,” he says.