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

Norwegian would: “I take some time off from Harry,then I want to hang out with him again.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 01:00

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.”

A publisher had asked Nesbo to write a memoir about life with the chart-topping Norwegian rock band Di Derre, with whom he was a singer and guitarist. He also had a day job as a financial analyst. “I told her, I don’t want to write about the band, but maybe I’ll send you something else. So I took six months off work and went to Australia. I figured, I’ll write something that’s simple and fast. I’ll write a crime novel.”

At that stage, he says, the now iconic detective Harry Hole wasn’t so much a character as a way of approaching the story. “He was just the starting point. He was the camera lens, looking at all the people he met and Australia and the story of the Aboriginals. That was what I found interesting.”

His follow-up novel, The Cockroaches, will get its first English-language publication in November. “This is Harry being sent to investigate a murder that nobody wants investigated,” says Nesbo. It features the Norwegian ambassdor to Thailand and child pornography.

The choice of Bangkok was down to the influence of Ray Bradbury’s book The Martian Chronicles. “He took us to Mars, a very strange, faraway place, but also strangely familiar – a dreamlike landscape – and, just as in a dream, you use things that you’ve already seen and you combine them in a new way. So it looks like a place you’ve never seen before. That was the idea in The Cockroaches,” Nesbo says. “My Martian Chronicles on Earth.”

It was Nesbo’s seventh book, The Snowman, with its creepy serial killer who builds snowmen in the gardens of his victims, that brought him to the attention of a mainstream English-language readership.

After that his earlier novels began to take over the shelves in the crime sections of bookshops: The Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil’s Star, The Redeemer. Despite their lookalike packaging, Nesbo could never be accused of sticking to a formula – unless it is his tireless pursuit of twists, turns and surprises.

Nor has he given his unlikely hero an easy time of it. Over the years Harry Hole has fought off Nazi sympathisers and Croatian hit men. His family has been terrorised, he has struggled with the twin personal demons of alcohol and drug abuse and he has often been found knocking on death’s, if not heaven’s, door.

But the toe-curling violence that seemed to fascinate Nesbo a decade ago has eased off in the most recent books.

“That topped out in The Leopard,” he says. “Looking back, I tried to use physical violence and sadism only to the extent that it tells you something about the characters who inflict injuries or pain on others. And sometimes, also, to change the temperature of the story, going from something that’s soft and warm to something that’s cold and hard. Using it almost in a musical way.

“Fictionalised violence can have a beauty to it – like dance, you know? – but I think in The Leopard I failed to do it right. In two scenes I took it too far. And I regret that. It may be that Phantom, to a certain extent, downplays the violence – and I think that was my own reaction to The Leopard.”

The focus of the series has also shifted away from the external threat of demented serial killers to the internal threat posed by the corrupt policeman Mikael Bellman. Nesbo sees the character – who, in the latest novel, has become chief of police – as a kind of alternative Harry Hole.

“Bellman is the obvious antagonist of the story and Harry is the obvious protagonist,” he says. “But there’s not much difference between the two. It’s so little that Harry could have been Bellman and vice versa, and that, to me, is interesting. What differentiates the two of them is moral decisions made in a split second.”

Unusually at a time when our television screens are crammed with Nordic investigators, Harry Hole has never made it into a TV series. But after the success of the big-screen version of Headhunters, Nesbo’s standalone art-heist romp, plans are afoot for Martin Scorsese to produce a film of The Snowman. Nesbo has also written a pilot about a divorce lawyer for US television.

Does this mean that, after 10 books, he has finally had it with Harry Hole? “Not really,” he says. “I could, of course, end the series with Police. It wouldn’t be a bad ending. But I’ve also written a longish storyline about Harry, and that storyline isn’t finished yet.

“What normally happens is that I take some time off from Harry and then I want to hang out with him again. The series – the things he is going through – changes him, both in the way he sees life and also physically. He is getting older. Slowly falling apart, like most of us. So I guess after a while the usual thing will happen, and I’ll want to meet up with him again.”

Police is published by Harvill Secker

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