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Into the troubled world of alcoholic Norwegian detective Harry Hole

Scandinavian crime writer Jo Nesbø's tense and violent thrillers are quite a rage. His novels may have exceeded 20 million copies in sales in more than 40 languages, but they weren't a big success when they first appeared.

brunch Updated: Jun 01, 2014 10:49 IST
Bron Sibree
Bron Sibree
Hindustan Times
Jo Nesbø,Scandinavian crime writer,thrillers

Success, it has to be said, is no stranger to Jo Nesbø's life. Long before the 53-year-old author was hailed as the latest Scandinavian crime sensation he was feted as a pop star in his native Norway. Long before that too, he was a successful stockbroker and, as he is fond of reminding people, his now famous crime series featuring the troubled alcoholic Norwegian detective Harry Hole, wasn't a big success when it first came out in 1997.

Scandinavian crime writer Jo Nesbø has become a sensation with his tense, violent thrillers featuring detective Harry Hole.

"But over the years it's just built and built, so it was a slow burn. I've been publishing books in Norway now for 15 years, and with every book I think that now, we have hit the peak. I mean, with a population of 4.5 million people, how many readers can you reach? quizzes Nesbø. "But what happened with Police, the tenth in the series, is [that] it has become a phenomenon. Suddenly it took everything to a level that I don't think anyone has ever seen in Norway. It's very strange."

Read:Scandinavian writers on crime fiction

Many in the book world have, of course, been using the words 'phenomenon' and 'Nesbø' in the same sentence for some time now. But given that sales of his novels now exceed 20 million copies in more than 40 languages, up from 10 million a scant two years ago - and that no less than four of his titles currently dominate Norway's bestseller lists - Nesbø's instincts ring true. He confesses to first experiencing a taste of celebrity and more with the surprise success of his rock band Di Derrre's second album some years ago, but says that brings him no closer to understanding it. "You are left wondering what is happening. Why is this? And it's the same thing. I'm just a writer. It's a lonely job sitting in a room writing a story for people, and what happens after that, it's out of my hands. But it is strange to watch."

The start
Nesbø came to the crime genre "by accident" in 1997 when, on a trip to Sydney, he first conceived of Harry Hole and what became the first book in the series, The Bat, instead of the book he was contracted to write (a book about life on the road as singer-songwriter with Di Derre, Norway's most successful band). "I had been writing lyrics and I had been writing short stories for many years, but writing a novel was this feeling of coming home, almost. It was just a great feeling," recalls Nesbø. "Why I chose a crime novel to begin with was that that I didn't have much time, I had to write something simple." He also felt compelled to write "about what Danish author Axel Sandemose claimed were the only two things worth writing about, murder and love."

The legend of Harry Hole
A cop with the Oslo Police Harry Hole is an intriguing, complex character. A recovering alcoholic, he struggles with his addiction. His personal relationships (family, the women in his life) are never easy or simple.

A determined, brilliant detective you can count on Hole to solve whatever case he's working on, though his unorthodox methods often lead him to flout authority and run afoul of his seniors. And yes, ruhless serial killers are something of a Harry Hole specialty.

There are many Harry Hole thrillers The first was The Bat (1997), the most recent is Police (2013). They're known for their nail-biting suspense and high levels of gore.

Cold, snowy Norway is the compelling backdrop for most of the novels Ice-bound, remote mountain cabins, the wintry streets of Oslo, snow-covered fields in the countryside: that's where the books' action often plays out.

As millions of devotees will tell you, there's no shortage of murder in any of Nesbø's novels, but his tenth, Police, sees the body count rise almost as fast as his book sales. Indeed, it begins when police officers in Oslo suddenly start showing up murdered at the scenes of crimes they once investigated. Adding to the confusion, Harry Hole seems to be absent, as the bodies pile up. But for all its violence and gore, says Nesbø, it is also a novel about love. "I think hate is probably the flipside of the coin to love, that you can't have any hate without having love. In order to have those strong emotions, the starting point is love, that you care so much for something that it will give birth to hatred. And at the end of the book the reader will see that it is all based on love, love gone wrong or a loved one been taken away from you."

But not before he's held his readers in a vice-like grip of tension and suspense for what feels like an age, and partly revolves around the mysterious identity of a heavily guarded man lying in a coma in an Oslo hospital. Audaciously manipulating and misleading his readers while stretching the possibilities of the crime series format is par for the course for Nesbo, who clearly enjoys his "contract with the reader," but admits "every Harry Hole book that I finish I have to take time off from them, because it is sort of a dark universe. Then a few months will pass and I will start longing to get back to that dark universe."

Crime & punishment
His enduring fascination with that "dark universe" stems from his enduring preoccupation with the nature of evil. "I don't know if you can use fiction to prove anything, I'm pretty sure you can't. But what you can use fiction for is to put forward ideas and propositions about what evil may be. And I'm suggesting that evil does exist in many different forms, that we are all capable of evil. My protagonist, Harry Hole, is sometimes committing the same crimes as the criminals in the books. But this need for revenge is not only in the individuals in the book, it's in the system. I think it's naïve to think than the system is only about getting dangerous people off the street, it's also there to satisfy our need for revenge."

Nesbø admits to being "driven" as a writer. "I feel I have to write, that you have these stories inside you and you just have to write them." With a new standalone, The Son, already released, and another in the works that has already been optioned for film by Warner Bros and a TV series about a lawyer called I Am Victor, he says "the next Harry Hole novel is not around the corner yet. Although I realise that Police would be a logic and natural end to the series. But then again, I've told myself that a couple of times now. And always what happens is that six months will pass and I will want to write another Harry story. It is a dark universe but I know myself now, and I know that after some time, I will want to go back there."

From HT Brunch, June 1
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First Published: May 31, 2014 15:34 IST