Jo Nesbo, the next Stieg Larsson? Norway’s bestseller is no fan of the thought.
By Monica Hesse,
OSLO — Lo, have we found him? Here, on the east coast of Norway, on the west side of Oslo, in a butter-yellow apartment building across from a day care called Urmafaba? Here, on this chilled spring morning, which the locals insist, with typically polite standoffishness, is unseasonable? Have we journeyed so long and so patiently to at last spot the rare and precious specimen that publishers speak of in hushed and desperate tones? Have we found . . . the next Stieg Larsson?
A man opens the door. A slender man, with pale hair, crinkly eyes and weather-beaten skin, pulled tight across his face. His artfully ripped jeans settle low on his hips. His voice has a lilt: His S’s become “Sh’s,” Oslo is Oshlo.
“Yooo Nez-baugh,” he says, extending his hand.
Pulp star, pop star, unlikely children’s author. The new Scandinavian import of our dizzy American dreams.
The next big thing?
In Oslo, which would look like Ann Arbor, Mich., if you didn’t know better, Nesbo is a household name.
“He is the best crime writer,” the clerk at Grensen Libris bookstore says proudly, skimming her fingers over the rainbow of colorful spines on the Nesbo shelf.
“Harry Hole eats here,” says a customer at Schroder restaurant, an Oslo standard, a classic cod-and-potatoes sort of place.
Harry Hole. The alcoholic hero of Jo Nesbo’s crime novels. (Hole is fictional; his favorite restaurant is real.) The dyspeptic detective who has trudged, world-weary, through eight battles with sadistic criminals in a cold climate. In Norway the books have sold about 2 million copies. This is more impressive when you consider the population of Norway is fewer than 5 million people.
“The series has been,” Nesbo says modestly, “a slow burn.”
Nesbo, 51, is about to begin an American tour, tied to the U.S. release Tuesday of his latest novel. In “The Snowman,” Hole deals with the fact that his ex-love and her son have a new man in their lives. Simultaneously, he chases a killer who targets mothers. The murderer’s method of execution is gruesome; what’s more bloodcurdling are the snowmen he leaves as a warning. Facing into houses. Watching his prey.
“Suspense is the same as humor, I think,” Nesbo says. We’ve moved from his apartment now, bicycled to a nearby cafe where Nesbo likes to write and drink the apple cider made in-house. “You think that you laugh because you’re surprised, but really, the success is that it delivers the punch line a second before the reader reaches the same conclusion. Suspense does that, too.”
“The publishing world has been reading a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction,” says Sonny Mehta, the Knopf editor who acquired “The Snowman.” “He really is being heralded as the new Scandinavian writer.”
Mehta knows something about Scandinavian writers. He was the editor responsible for the Americanization of another Nordic scribe, a dragon-tattooed one named Stieg whose posthumous trilogy about a Swedish cyberpunk finally upended “The Da Vinci Code” as the book everyone reads on planes.
You see the similarities: Scandinavia. Literary crime fiction. “The Snowman” is set against the backdrop of George W. Bush’s presidency, and so Nesbo and Larsson also share a propensity for political commentary. In London, where “The Snowman” has become a bestseller, bookstores lump Nesbo’s novels with Larsson’s, label the whole lot “Scandi-crime,” and lure buyers by affixing deceptive little stickers to Nesbo’s covers: Read this if you like STIEG LARSSON.
Everyone really, really hopes they’ve found the next big thing.
Or the guy who was there first?
Which Nesbo, naturally, finds irritating. It’s frustrating that someone would label you “next” when your first books were published years before the works you are supposed to be succeeding.
“The idea that Scandinavian crime writers have something in common is a myth,” he says. “The biggest thing they have in common is that they are from Norway, Sweden or Denmark.”
His literary heroes growing up in the midsize town of Molde weren’t necessarily Scandinavian, weren’t even crime writers. He loved Ray Bradbury. He loved Jim Thompson, who elevated noir to art, who wrote in his own bleak climate of Oklahoma.
Of the Larsson comparison: “I don’t really like it.”
But the fact is that Nesbo has already had three Harry Hole books printed in the United States with another publisher — “The Redbreast,” “The Devil’s Star” and “Nemesis” — and none of them became big hits. It’s possible that “The Snowman” is simply a better novel. When it was published in Norway in 2008, it won the Norwegian Book Club Prize for best novel of the year. But it’s more likely that this book is garnering so much attention because it’s the first of Nesbo’s to come to the States since the Larssonization of American bookstores.
“Our countries are so closely linked, culturally,” he says of the U.S. embrace of Scandinavian literature. “We have the same references, watch the same movies.” He might be particularly attuned to this — his father was raised in New York by immigrant parents who later moved back — but Norwegians “are all becoming Americans. Paris Hilton is famous in Norway for no other reason than she is an American star. When the driving conditions are bad in Chicago, we see it on Norwegian television.”
Has he hit on the secret of the great Scandi-crime boom? The books are foreign, but only foreign enough to intrigue, not to frighten. Even when an American reader doesn’t understand what Mikael Blomkvist or Harry Hole is ordering for lunch, they still understand the concept of going into a cafe. It’s America with monaphthongal vowels, which make the books seem like crime novels for eggheads.
The trouble is that what made Larsson’s novels so successful was that their success could never have been predicted. Billys Pan Pizzas and midnight suns were novel concepts when Larsson wrote about them. But now that we know to look out for politically inclined Scandinavian crime writers, isn’t it more likely that the next Larsson— the next writer whose subject matter and style will inflame the entire reading world — will be a Japanese satirist or a nun from Malawi who writes romances on the side?
Or just his own man?
The real misfortune of comparing Nesbo to Larsson (or Henning Mankell, whom Larsson himself was originally compared to) is that Nesbo is interesting on his own.
He began as an athlete. In his youth, he played for Norway’s premier club soccer team; everyone said he would go pro, but then he blew out his knee at 19.
He got a degree in economics instead, became a stockbroker by day. He’d written songs for friends’ bands in his youth (“I even wrote for a Christian band!” he says delightedly. “I love Jesus, okay!”), so, by night, he decided to form his own group with his brother, Knut. Di Derre became an unlikely pop success, performing well on the European charts. You can see some of their performances on YouTube. They’ll remind you of A-Ha.
It was during his touring days that a friend at a publishing house contacted him: With the success he’d had with lyrics, perhaps he might want to try his hand at another form of writing? Nesbo gave himself five weeks to write a novel, choosing the crime genre because he liked the structure. He ended up with Harry Hole.
“I found it quite easy,” he says. “In crime, you have this intimate conversation with the reader,” both obeying the laws of the genre.
His apartment is littered with remnants of these former lives: a keyboard and guitar set up in a corner (he still performs 50 or 60 gigs a year) and an indoor rock-climbing wall snaking up the side of his office, a shrine to continued athleticism.
A few years ago, he took up the unlikeliest of projects when he began penning a children’s series about an absentminded professor named Doktor Proktor. “It was really for the worst reason,” he says. He has a daughter, who is now 11 (he and the girl’s mother are not married), and he thought it would be fun to write down some of the bedtime stories they made up together. “When you’re an established name, you know that a children’s book will have a pretty good chance of getting picked up. Like Madonna. It’s not that I had this great idea.”
He pauses, considering something.
“Actually, in my case, it was a great idea.”
Coming into his own
A phone call. Nesbo pauses his cider-drinking to answer. It was, he explains later, a Norwegian reality show. The host moves in with a different Norwegian celebrity every week; the producers want to know if she can move in with Nesbo next. He declines.
It’s a typical request as of late. It’s one thing to be famous in a country so intimate that morning walkers can dawdle on the lawn of the Oslo palace that houses King Harald V. It’s another to go global. For years, Nesbo turned down bids to option his books for the movies. Film is such a definitive medium, he says. “I’d rather have 1,000 different Harrys in the mind of my readers” than one chosen by a production company. Recently, though, he’s agreed to sell the rights for “The Snowman” to Working Title.
He’s been asked to write a new Doktor Proktor installment, and he’s working on developing a television series — the storyboards cover one wall of his dining area — though he won’t say what it’s about.
When told that about the London marketing ploy — the stickers with the Stieg Larsson prompt — he laughs. “Now that the book is number one in the U.K., they won’t have to use that anymore.”
Maybe, he muses, someone can create a new sticker to slap on the cover of the next Scandi-crime sensation. “Read this,” it will say, “if you like Jo Nesbo.”