Jo Nesbo is in Harrogate this week. Chris Bond talks to the man hailed as the king of Scandinavian crime fiction.
JO Nesbo was 14 years old when he first visited Yorkshire.
But he didn’t rush to Haworth, home of the Brontes, or the wild beauty of the Calder Valley that inspired Ted Hughes. Instead he made a beeline for Elland Road.
Nesbo was a huge football fan from an early age and back in the mid-1970s Leeds United were one of Europe’s biggest teams. So when his parents took the family on holiday to Yorkshire he wanted to get a glimpse of the hallowed turf.
“We went to Leeds and I remember climbing up on the shoulders of my brother and trying to look into the stadium because it was closed for the summer,” he says.
Decades later when he appeared at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, it gave him the opportunity to return to the ground. “I was thrilled when I heard we were going to stop in Leeds to change trains because I would get the chance to see inside the stadium when it was open.”
Nesbo is now one of the world’s greatest crime fiction writers and this week he returns to Harrogate when he will be talking to Mark Lawson for a special launch event ahead of the festival, which takes place in July when the likes of Lee Child, Mark Billingham, David Morrissey and Ann Cleeves will be among the special guests.
Harrogate is a town Nesbo enjoys visiting. “It fits in with that quintessential British crime fiction tradition of a small picturesque town known for its beautiful flowers. People are interested in flowers and murders and it seems to fit in with the English crime novels that I grew up with where everything looks very cosy and peaceful.
“To me, Harrogate is the kind of place that inspired the Scandinavian crime novel and crime writing tradition.”
His latest book, Blood on Snow, is a stand alone thriller. “It’s not a typical novel for me, it’s quite short and it’s written in the first person.” It’s about a professional killer who is given a job only to fall for his intended victim. “It’s set in Oslo in the 1970s and it was inspired by Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries where he makes Manhattan feel dangerous but also small, and in Blood on Snow Oslo is similar.”
This might come as a surprise to some people who perhaps think of Norway as a liberal, freedom-loving country. “Any big city will have its darker side, it’s inevitable, and Oslo is no different to any other European city of a similar size. On the other hand my Oslo is a little bit more twisted and darker, a bit like Gotham City is a darker version of New York.”
Nesbo has become known for his tightly plotted stories and unexpected, sometimes spectacular, twists. It started 18 years ago with the publication of The Bat which introduced the world to a new literary creation, Harry Hole - a heavy drinking, chain-smoking detective with a smart line in cynicism.
Since then Nesbo has written nine more Harry Hole crime fiction novels, as well as several other thrillers and gone on to establish as the leading light of Scandinavian crime fiction. At the last count he had sold more 23 million copies and his books had been translated into 40 languages.
Along with “superstars” like the late Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, Nesbo has helped propel the genre into the literary stratosphere. But when asked why “Scandi” crime fiction, or Scandinavian “noir” as it’s sometimes called, has been so phenomenally successful, he’s at a bit of a loss. “A German reviewer described one of my novels as ‘Nordic light’ and I have no idea what that means. People ask me, ‘what is it with Scandinavian crime fiction?’ and I’ve been trying to come up with a smart answer, but I really don’t know.”
Nesbo grew up in a bookish family living in Norway. His father was a voracious reader and his mother was a librarian. His father was raised in the United States and introduced him to the work of American hard-boiled fiction writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and, in particular, Jim Thompson, who has been arguably his biggest literary influence.
But as a teenager Nesbo looked set not to be a writer, but a footballer. He was already playing for Molde, one of Norway’s top teams, when he tore cruciate ligaments in his knee which curtailed his fledgling football career at the age of just 18.
Instead he went to business school and spent time as a stockbroker and journalist. He also formed a rock band called Di Derre, meaning Them There, whose second album topped the Norwegian charts.
On the back of this he was commissioned to write a memoir about life on the road with his band, but instead came up with the idea for his first Harry Hole novel. “I saw so many friends getting lost trying to write the great European novel, so I thought I would do something simple that has a head and a tail, and I knew the head and tail of a crime novel.”
He came up with the idea during a flight from Oslo to Sydney. He wrote the book in five weeks but didn’t think it would get published. “I wrote it more as a test piece. I thought I would send it to a publisher to get a contact so I could send my ‘real’ novel to them,” he says. Even after it was published he still didn’t see Harry becoming part of a long-running series.
“It wasn’t until after writing the second novel that I saw there was so much of his character I could use.”
There are plans to turn the Harry Hole series into films with director Tomas Alfredson already on board, although he isn’t giving much away on this score. “They are working on it, but let’s wait and see what happens.”
Nesbo has enjoyed success at seemingly everything he turns his hand to. He laughs at this idea when I mention it, but says he likes to maintain a “playful” attitude. “When we were the best selling band in Norway I still kept doing my day job because I didn’t want the music to pay the rent.
“The thing with the music is I didn’t depend on doing it and it’s the same with writing, it’s not like I have to do it. Writing is something I choose to do every time I wake up in the morning.
“If I stopped writing it would be something I miss but I wouldn’t miss it because I had to do it. For me it’s all about making sure I love the thing that I do and I have made sure that I maintained that feeling of it being a joy,” he says.
“In one of his songs Bruce Springsteen says he’s ‘paid a king’s ransom for doin’ what comes naturally’, and that’s how I feel about writing and music.”
* The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival presents Jo Nesbo in conversation with Mark Lawson this Wednesday at The Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, at 7.30pm.
Tickets are priced £13. Go to http://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com