Jo Nesbo: ‘Fictional violence can have a beauty to it’
The first Harry Hole thrillers could be toe-curlingly savage. Ten novels later, Jo Nesbo is still putting his detective in dangerous places – and it’s starting to take its toll
Norwegian would: “I take some time off from Harry,then I want to hang out with him again.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Talking to Jo Nesbo is a bit weird. The Norwegian crime writer speaks quietly in streams of words whose earnestness is undercut by a strong current of mischief. He’s wearing sunglasses with orange lenses, so you can’t quite see if he’s serious. Plus, all those Nordic-accented consonants are hypnotic. Every now and again you feel as though you’ve strayed on to the set of a television crime series – Arne Dahl or The Killing or Wallander – where instead of saying takk or är du okej? everyone is speaking soft Scandinavian English.
Nesbo has just published the 10th novel in his series featuring the detective Harry Hole, a 500-page whopper entitled Police. Earlier this year the first novel in the series, The Bat, was published in English for the first time, although it was written in 1997. Having just read them one after the other, I have a couple of bones to pick with the author.
First of all, for the first 150 pages of the new novel, did he intend readers to assume that Harry Hole was dead? The orange lenses flash. “That man in the hospital,” he says. “You’re not sure whether that’s Harry or not. At the end of Phantom he was in a bad spot – but I did write Phantom and The Police in one, so everything was planned. I like to play with the genre and the idea of a series.
“Of course I am also manipulating the reader into believing certain things – and that is crime fiction. You’re allowed to manipulate your readers and to be the illusionist. Draw the attention to your left hand while doing the trick with your right. That is part of the fun for me as the writer – and hopefully, also, for the reader.
“I never thought of this,” Nesbo adds, “but it’s like in The Third Man. Harry Lime is referred to from the start of the movie, but you don’t see him. You just hear him whistling and see his shadow. And it’s the same in this story. The Third Man has, in many ways, inspired this series: is Harry the good guy or is Harry the bad guy?”
Well, exactly. Because at the beginning of The Bat Harry just turns up. No introduction, no explanation, no back story. No identifying quirks. When Nesbo wrote his first Harry Hole book, did he ever dream he’d write 10 of them – and sell a cool 20 million copies? “No, no, no,” he says. “No way. I wasn’t even thinking that it would be published.”
The title, The Bat, refers to the Aboriginal symbol of death. Why did he set his debut novel in Australia? “Because I was going there. Simple as that.”