Jo Nesbo: ‘The details of a murder don’t really disturb me’
The Norwegian crime writer gets up close and personal with killing in his latest thriller
Jo Nesbo, author of the Harry Hole detective crime novels, pictured on December 9th, 2018. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
“I didn’t start off planning to be a crime writer” Jo Nesbo tells me, when I ask him what attracted him to the bloody subject which has made his name. “I’m more of a storyteller, I guess – it was almost coincidence that I started writing crime fiction.”
In 1996, Nesbo was 36 years old and exhausted. Having never written fiction, he decided to take a break from touring with his band De Derre, as well as his job as a stockbroker – “The rest of the band were full time, but I insisted on keeping my day job, so I had a very demanding schedule” – and decamped for an impromptu trip to Australia.
“I had five weeks and decided I wanted to write something” he recalls. “I thought it would be a crime story because I didn’t have the time to write the great European novel. I went for a simple story, head, body and tail. Once I’d written it, I saw that the genre gives you opportunities you don’t have in other types of writing. You have this almost interactive conversation with your readers, a proper whodunnit gives you a license to manipulate your readers. I like that game, I also like the fact that the reader really will have to study everything because there may be some vital information there, those little clues that they need.”
I don’t say to myself ‘oh, this will be 20 per cent darker than the last one
Has his process changed? “This one probably started with an idea I had in bed early morning” he tells me, in his soft Norwegian burr. “I do remember that I came up with the title and then put some pieces together.”
That title was Knife, and it is now the 12th in his massively successful Harry Hole series of crime novels which have sold something in the region of 30 million copies and made their hero a household name for people who like their crime Nordic, stoic, and darker than a scorching hot shot of Tim Wendelboe espresso.
True to reputation, the promotional literature accompanying Knife describes this as Harry Hole’s “darkest case yet”, a tag that Nesbo appears to balk at slightly himself. “I don’t set out to do it that way,” he advises with a wry lilt, “I don’t say to myself ‘oh, this will be 20 per cent darker than the last one,’ or that kind of thing.”
‘Resistence to killing’
“I was actually doing research on our natural resistance to killing,” he explains, “the instinct which stops us from taking other lives. An American study after the second World War showed that only between 15 and 30 per cent of US soldiers were shooting at the enemy, the rest were shooting elsewhere.”
Dismayed that their men were not the ruthless killing machines they’d hoped, the US army had to devise new training methods to counteract this regrettable reluctance to kill.
“For snipers, it was quite easy,” he says, “shooting from 400m away, but the hardest to train were those who had to kill by knife, when you get so intimate with your enemy that you can see them, hear them, smell them; actually touch them. And that stuck with me, that piece of research – it’s hard to kill someone you’re close to, and that was already a theme of the book. It’s a book about Harry Hole’s inner circle, a book about intimacy, which Harry is not very good at. And it became a tagline; in order to kill someone with a knife, you have to get close.”
The first antagonist we encounter is very fond of doing just that, a serial killer from Hole’s past, nicknamed the Fiancé, who assaults and impregnates his victims at knifepoint. It’s grim, emotive material, and a topic that necessarily provokes reflections on the role of female trauma within the crime genre.
“I do think that there has been criticism against crime novels,” he says “for so often featuring female victims. I think there’s research concluded that the numbers of victims in these novels, more or less, correlates to the numbers in real life. I would say that I haven’t thought about the discussion in detail, and of course, if you’re portraying women in general as helpless victims and male characters as the people in power, then that is neither interesting nor a realistic portrait of society. Fiction doesn’t have to give a realistic picture, of course, but it’s probably more interesting if it’s connected to reality.
“But,” he says “I think I would be more upset if the opposite were the case; if violence toward women in society was not written about in crime stories, because that’s a real problem in modern society, that women are victims and men are offenders in so many cases.”
The book places the reader, and presumably its author, right within this milieu, and within the minds of broken people, sadists, and their victims. Does tracing these deaths, betrayals and counter-betrayals still have the capacity to disturb even him?
“No, the details of a murder don’t really disturb me that much,” he says, offering the example of another book by contrast. “I once spoke to a friend after we’d read American Psycho. I felt like my mind was polluted by that book, as if it had given me a bad conscience; as if I should put it away because it’s not good for me as a human being to have read this. We tried to analyse what was so disturbing about that book, and it wasn’t what they were doing to each other, it was the way it was told without any emotion, just accurate descriptions of what they did and nothing else. There’s less blood and murder in my book, less of the mechanical side of killing, but probably more about that emotional weight.”
If someone were to tell him that Knife polluted their minds in the same way, I ask, would Nesbo consider that a compliment?
“It could be, yes!” he laughs, “I mean, I think Ellis is brilliant, I both love and hate American Psycho, and also his first book Less Than Zero, it has that same tone, and it’s brilliantly done. It just leaves everything up to the reader, and maybe that’s why it’s so disturbing. There’s no judge, you have to be a judge yourself, it can be stressful to have to interpret and make sense of it yourself. So, if a reader told me that, in the way I told my friend about American Psycho then yes, I would definitely take it as a compliment.”
At some point I thought I’d like to direct a movie
Nesbo’s works have been adapted by others for TV and film several times, including Morten Tyldum’s well-received 2011 thriller Headhunters and, perhaps more infamously, Tomas Alfredson’s preternaturally terrible Michael Fassbender vehicle The Snowman. How does he relate to these other works based on his own?
“I write novels and I hope the movies based on my books will be good of course,” he says. “That is for the sake of the movie, we need good movies! But the movie doesn’t need to represent my book, they don’t need to be a retelling or a version of my story.
“It reminds me of the story of Michael Ondaatje, who wrote The English Patient. He ran into a colleague who’d seen a film adaptation of his work he didn’t like. ‘Michael,’ he said ‘look at what they did to your book.’ Michael just replied, ‘They didn’t do anything to the book.’ I feel the same. My job is done, I wrote a novel, not a story board. If they want to use it, fine, but other than that my job is done.
“At some point,” he tells me, “I thought I’d like to direct a movie, if I got the chance. But then I did get a chance, so a friend and I directed a short movie and it was . . . okay,” he laughs.
“It was no masterpiece, but not a bad first attempt. What I realised was that directing is so much hard work and you have to compromise all the way; if the weather isn’t right, if you can’t get the actor that you want for a role, if you have to base it somewhere other than where you want it. And I realised, I’m writing novels, and I play all the main parts myself, and I can decide what the weather will be like myself, I can make it perfect. Some people like that element of coincidence and the magic that happens, but I don’t.”
Knife is published by Harvill Secker