In 1970, when he was about 10 years old, Jo Nesbø’s mother received a phone call from one of his school teachers. She sounded worried and wanted to have a quick word about an essay he’d written. “The topic was ‘My stay in the woods’. Normally, children would write one or two pages, but I’d written 10,” says Nesbø, 59, his soft, gravelly voice floating in from his home in Oslo.
“My story had a lot of animals in it, and it was full of fantasy and violence — after entering the woods, nobody would come back alive. I wasn’t thinking about murder at that young age, but it stemmed from my fear of getting lost in the woods as I once had, when I was really young; and being afraid of never seeing my family again. As a writer, especially if you write suspense or horror, you can dive into your own fears and draw upon that experience to tell a story,” he says.
If it weren’t for this phone call to talk about Knife, his 12th Harry Hole novel, Norway’s most well-known writer, with 33 million copies sold worldwide, would likely have headed out to his office, a coffee shop where he’s written his books for the past 18 years. The establishment is not on the list of the “Harry Hole’s Oslo” tour, a two-hour long walk through the Norwegian capital, following in the footsteps of the high-functioning alcoholic, but brilliant, detective. It begins at Karl Johans gate (not far from where a Salvation Army officer is shot in The Redeemer, 2009), taking fans past Sofies gate, where Hole lives, his regular hangout Restaurant Schrøder, watering holes like the now-closed Underwater Pub, Teddy’s and the Dinner Restaurant (where Rakel Fauke, the love of his life, flirted with him in The Redbreast); outside the police station in Grønland, and Holmenkollen, where Harry lived with Rakel after they married at the end of Police (2013), and where the finale of The Snowman (2010), the most famous title of the series, is played out. In Knife, translated from the Norwegian by Neil Smith and published by Harvill Secker last month, Nesbø plunges into that old, and, yet, familiar fear from his childhood — the loss of one’s loved ones.
After a brief flirtation with sobriety, Harry is back on the sauce and caught in his worst nightmare — Rakel has been found knifed to death in the Holmenkollen home they shared till very recently. He cannot sleep, and, if he rouses even the slightest from his alcohol-induced stupor, the sheer pain of losing her will bleed him dry. Having defied death many times, Harry is ready to meet his maker with arms wide open, but he cannot rest till he brings Rakel’s killer to justice. Is it an old enemy like the rapist-murderer Svein Finne, an army veteran suffering from PTSD, or the man in the mirror? With the state he’s in, why should anybody trust Harry?
“What makes Harry so relatable to readers is the inherent contradiction. He is a romantic alcoholic — on the one hand, he is empathetic and vulnerable, and on the other, he’s a cynic. Unlike most of us who want to stay in the herd, he doesn’t really belong in society and he doesn’t really mind. He does hate his job, though,” says Nesbø, with a laugh. And, yet, he returns from the dead, after being shot at point-blank range (Phantom, 2013), to serve his department?
“Because he knows that he’s so good at it. That’s true for many of us — if we find something we’re good at, we don’t think too much of whether we like it or not. We just want to contribute in a meaningful way and be a valuable member of society,” says Nesbø. He isn’t being humble; for long, that particular sentiment has been the norm in his part of the world.
Unlike most of American detective fiction, which concentrates on a single character’s brush with evil, and his or her attempts to thwart its devastating aftermath, Nordic noir, the sub-genre under which Nesbø’s oeuvre falls, has historically treated crime as a prism to view society at large. Readers can trace its beginnings to the 10-volume Martin Beck series, written from 1965-1975 by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a couple who co-wrote the police procedurals set in the homicide division of the Swedish national police. With every case, the books delved into the social and political issues of the Nordic Model, in particular the Swedish welfare state, a social democracy based on the tenets of free market capitalism. In the 1990s, the baton was passed on to fellow Swedes Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser, whose Kurt Wallander and Inspector Van Veeteren series respectively set the tone for the sub-genre. In their books, Scandinavia, which boasts of interminable days and nights depending on the season, became a site of spectacular beauty, wealth, and a deep rot simmering below the surface. Not everyone wrote a series though — in 1992, Peter Høeg’s stunning thriller, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, explored Denmark’s post-colonial history with Greenland and Inuit culture to great effect. But global recognition for Nordic Noir came after the release of the late journalist and novelist Stieg Larsson’s explosive Millennium Trilogy in 2005.
Unbeknownst to new followers of the genre, Nesbø had already written his first Harry Hole book, The Bat, in 1997, eight years before Lisbeth Salander stormed onto the scene. It won the Riverton Prize for Best Norwegian Crime Novel of the Year along with the Glass Key Award next year for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year. So why did the world still not know about Jo Nesbø? The answer is simple: the books were yet to be translated into English.
Not that it mattered to Nesbø. If life had taught him anything, it was that sometimes a bad thing could end up being good for him.
When he was 19 years old, Nesbø was utterly certain of one thing — someday, he was going to play for the Tottenham Hotspur football club. Born in Oslo in 1960, and raised in Molde, a city on the west coast of Norway, he’d been playing for Molde Fotballklubb, a professional football club, since his late teens. During a match, he was tackled as he was passing the ball. A cartilage in his leg snapped. The dream was over. “If not for that injury, I’d surely have been playing for the Spurs,” says Nesbø confidently. A beat later, he laughs: “I’m joking, it wasn’t going to happen. I don’t really think I was that ambitious or disciplined either.”
He hung up his football boots and enlisted into the Norwegian Armed Forces for his mandatory military service. “A friend in the army had a guitar. I was so bad at learning the instrument that I couldn’t even play any of the regular songs — I had to make up my own songs to play,” says Nesbø. Three years later, he formed a band with his brother Knut and some friends. They called themselves Di Derre (Them There in Norwegian, roughly translated in English as Those Guys) and played mellow pop-rock — something that continues to amaze his fans who know him as the thriller writer with the most violent plotlines.
Soon after, Nesbø graduated from the Norwegian School of Economics with a degree in economics and business administration; he didn’t want to rely on his music career as a source of income. Working as a stockbroker during the day, and gigging with the band in the evenings, Nesbø watched Di Derre become one of Norway’s most popular bands, releasing albums and music videos for seven-odd years.
“I was the only songwriter in the band, and by the late ’90s, I was tired. All our songs were about growing up in Molde, and, after some time, I’d run out of stories,” says Nesbø. He’d been commissioned by a publisher to write a memoir about his financial analyst-popstar double life; it was time to take a break, and Nesbø decided to go on a vacation that would change his life.
“Thirty-three hours — that’s how long it took for me to come up with Harry Hole, because that’s how long it takes to fly from Oslo to Sydney,” he says, “When I arrived, it was the middle of the night. I was so jetlagged, I couldn’t sleep. So I started writing about this detective who is called to Australia to solve a murder.”
Readers know Harry Hole (pronounced Hoo-leh, Hurler, take your pick. Nesbø, whose first name is pronounced Yoo, says he doesn’t care) as a tall, lanky man with light blue eyes; after his deadly tryst with The Snowman, Nesbø gave him a liver-coloured scar that runs across his cheek to his ear, and a titanium middle finger. Given his alcoholism, his anger issues, his erratic method of investigating his cases, some fans of the series call him “young Wallander”, but there’s a darkness, a deep sense of despair in him that is entirely his own.
Once the books were published in English, lovers of detective fiction and thrillers sat up and took notice of Harry Hole. Nesbø begins each book with a sledgehammer: there is very little time spent between the preamble and the first act of violence. The pages turn quickly as the body count racks up, but Nesbø is not one to lose sight of the larger picture of what each crime really is about. For nearly two decades, he has cast an unflinching gaze into Norway’s involvement in World War II, Oslo’s drug scene, the widening gap between rural and urban centres, immigrants, and street violence. You know it’s a Nesbø novel when the façade of normalcy and innocence is savagely ripped aside to show us what the nine circles of hell of Dante’s Inferno can look like. As for Hole, one would imagine that he’s either too brave or too foolish to let himself down that path.
“I think in order to understand or relate to other people’s weaknesses, you have to have some experience with weakness or addiction yourself. Stories are about conflicts, and the main story in this series is his internal conflict. It’s not just about solving the case. His moral dilemma is what makes him so interesting to me as a writer — should he be an instrument of justice or should he play god and decide another’s fate?” says Nesbø.
His reflections on morality have also been shaped by his family’s history. During WWII, his parents were on opposite sides — his mother had joined Norway’s Resistance Movement, and his father had fought alongside the Germans against Russia.
“My father told me about his past when I was 15. He was raised in the US and was taught to believe that communism and Stalin were a greater threat than Hitler. In the beginning, I couldn’t imagine it, my father wearing a Nazi helmet. We talked about the war, what makes us take big decisions in our lives; that in order to understand cultures and human beings, we have to be willing to try and understand what information people have and how they view the world,” says Nesbø.
In 2000, he wrote the first of two books that were inspired by his father’s story. The Redbreast (published in English in 2006) is cleaved into two halves: Harry must investigate neo-Nazi activity in present-day Oslo, while a parallel story is set in the past when young Norwegians fought alongside the Nazis during the Siege of Leningrad and the Bombing of Hamburg. The Son (2014) is a story about a man’s fight against corruption, as well as his endeavour to redeem his father’s past sins. Nesbø also provided the idea for the acclaimed Norwegian political thriller Occupied (2015): what would happen if Russia were to invade Norway for their oil resources?
Several of his contemporaries have touched upon the rise of right-wing extremists in their work, notably Larsson. It’s been eight years since the horrific attacks by Anders Breivik against the Norwegian government and civilians that killed 77 people, and Nesbø is quick to say that Norway does not have a popular right-wing political movement.
“What happened on July 22, 2011 was the action of a single person. What we see in the international political arena today is the revenge of the stupids. Politics and media used to be the playground of the elite, but social media has made things democratic. That should be a good thing but it is not,” he says.
Even though he says he doesn’t write constantly, the Norwegian is incredibly prolific. While writing the Harry Hole series that has books coming out every two-three years, Nesbø has re-told Macbeth, set in an imaginary Scottish city, after being invited by the Hogarth Shakespeare project. He even wrote two books under a pseudonym, Olav Johansen — Blood on Snow, and Midnight Sun — both published in 2015; the movie rights to the former have been bought by Warner Brothers. Nesbø’s work makes for thrilling screen adaptations, even though the 2017 international production of The Snowman, starring Michael Fassbender as Harry, did not fare well at the box office. But at home, Nesbø has been an enormous success: the highest-grossing Norwegian film of all time, Headhunters, is based on his 2008 novel.
In between the gore and grime of his crime novels, Nesbø also found time to write a children’s book series called Dr Proctor’s Fart Powder (2007-2017). “I wrote the series for my daughter, Selma, who would order stories. She even gave me a list of ingredients for them — a princess who was like her, a tiny boy because she was scared of boys at the time, a potato, a mad professor, some vegetables and a dinosaur. I got rid of the last two and added the fart powder. I grew up with three brothers, and we had farting competitions. I can’t think of many things more fun than that,” he says. He really must rush, Nesbø says a little apologetically, drawing our conversation to a close; he has to work on a collection of short stories now.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline: ‘The Razor’s Edge’