Jo Nesbo is one of the world’s bestselling crime writers, with The Leopard, Phantom, Police, The Son and The Thirst, all topping the Sunday Times bestseller charts. He's an international number one bestseller and his books are published in 50 languages, selling over 50 million copies around the world.
Before becoming a crime writer, Nesbo played football for Norway’s premier league team Molde, but his dream of playing professionally for Spurs was dashed when he tore ligaments in his knee at the age of eighteen. After three years military service he attended business school and formed the band Di derre ('Them There'). They topped the charts in Norway, but Nesbo continued working as a financial analyst, crunching numbers during the day and gigging at night. When commissioned by a publisher to write a memoir about life on the road with his band, he instead came up with the plot for his first Harry Hole crime novel, The Bat.
Norwegian writer and musician
by Kathleen Kuiper
Jo Nesbø, (born March 29, 1960, Oslo, Norway), Norwegian writer and musician, best known internationally for a series of crime novels featuring hard-boiled detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hoo-la in Norwegian).
Nesbø grew up in Molde, western Norway. While in school, he also played guitar and sang in a pop-rock band. He graduated from the Norwegian School of Economics (Norges Handelshøyskole) in Bergen with a degree in economics. After graduating, he took a job as a stockbroker while maintaining a vision of himself as a singer-songwriter. In 1992 he helped start a band named Di Derre, which recorded several albums. Working at a stressful day job and performing with his increasingly popular band at night eventually took its toll on Nesbø. When someone made a casual suggestion that he write a book about traveling with the band, he took it as a challenge, asked for six months off, went to Australia, and returned with what would become his first Harry Hole novel.
That book, titled Flaggermusmannen (1997; “Bat Man”; Eng. trans. The Bat), follows Hole, a recovering alcoholic, to Australia for a murder investigation. Nesbø’s second Hole novel, Kakerlakkene (1998; “Cockroaches”; The Cockroaches), takes the detective through the seamy underworld of Bangkok. Rødstrupe (2000; “Robin”; The Redbreast) details the role of fascism in Norway. In Sorgenfri (2002; “Sorrow-Free”; Nemesis) Hole investigates a bank robbery and is implicated in the death of a former girlfriend. A serial killer is at work in Marekors (2003; “Pentagram”; The Devil’s Star), this time in Oslo. Hole tracks a contract killer in Frelseren (2005; “Saviour”; The Redeemer) and another serial killer in Snømannen (2007; The Snowman). Panserhjerte (2009; “Armoured Heart”; The Leopard) has Hole tracked down in Hong Kong and persuaded to reengage in police work. Gjenferd (2011; “Ghost”; Phantom) treats the drug scene in Oslo and examines Hole’s experience of fatherhood, and Politi (2013; Police) continues the story begun in Phantom. In Tørst (2017; The Thirst) Hole hunts for a killer who finds his victims on Tinder, a dating app. The 12th Hole book, Kniv (Knife), was published in 2019.
Nesbø’s Hole series proved to be extremely popular and was translated into many languages. Its popularity was in part because of tight plotting and in part because of Nesbø’s method of presenting his main character. Throughout the series, Hole battles his demons, sometimes successfully but more often not. Each successive volume deepens the reader’s experience with Hole and his life on the edge. Furthermore, the later books refer to incidents in the earlier books, another effect that adds dimension to Hole’s deeply flawed but essentially sympathetic personality.
Nesbø’s long essay “Stemmer fra Balkan” (“Figures in the Balkans”) was published in 1999 with another long essay by Espen Søbye, about the authors’ trip to Serbia and Norway’s role in the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Nesbø also produced several stand-alone books, including the novella Det hvite hotellet (2007; “The White Hotel”) and the novels Hodejegerne (2009; Headhunters; film 2011), Sønnen (2014; The Son), and Kongeriket (2020; The Kingdom). Blod på snø (2015; Blood on Snow) and Mere blod (2015; Midnight Sun) are linked crime thrillers set in 1970s Norway. Macbeth (2018), a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play, was written for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. In addition, Nesbø published a book of short stories, Karusellmusikk (2001; “Carousel Music”), and a number of children’s books, including a series of books featuring Doktor Proktor and his Fart Powder.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: A LITTLE ABOUT BOOKS AND EVEN LESS ABOUT HARRY
I COME FROM A FAMILY OF READERS AND STORYTELLERS. My mother was a librarian and my father used to sit in the living room reading every afternoon. And he told stories. Long stories we had heard before, but in such a way that we wanted to hear them again. When I was seven I psulled Lord of the Flies off the bookshelf and asked my father to read it to me. Not so much because I had good taste, but because on the cover there was a picture of a pig’s bloodstained head impaled on a pole. My father read it and I thought I could have made the story more exciting myself. I had already begun to impress friends my age, and some older children, with my gruesome ghost stories.
But my greatest passion was soccer. I made my first appearance for Molde, a Premier League team in Norway, at the age of seventeen and I was sure I would go on to play professionally in England for the Tottenham Hotspurs. So I started skipping school and I think that, if you asked the teachers at my high school, my very existence came to be shrouded in mystery. My grades tanked, but so what? I was going to be a pro athlete…
Then I blew out the cruciate ligaments in my knees. Probably no loss for Tottenham, but my world came crashing down. School was over and when I got my grades I realized they just weren’t good enough to do the things I had wanted to do. A number of career paths were no longer open to me. So I took a deep breath and signed up to do military service in the far north of Norway. For the three years I was there, I shut myself in every night and every weekend and bulldozed my way through the high school syllabus. And read quite a bit of Hamsun and Hemingway, too. Until then I had always trusted my talent and taken it for granted, and followed the path of least resistance, but now I discovered a new side of myself: self-discipline. When I finally held my high school diploma in my hands that spring, with top-notch grades, I experienced a deep, heartfelt satisfaction I had never felt before, and perhaps not since either. Now I could get into pretty much any school or any program I wanted. The problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted to study. So I enrolled at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen, a school with a long, illustrious tradition and a prestigious name. I figured it had to be good.
One day in the cafeteria this guy came up to me and said someone told him I played guitar. That wasn’t exactly true: I knew three chords. But I didn’t contradict him since he was trying to get a band together. And so I became the guitarist for De Tusen Hjem which played the kind of industrial noise rock you get when you’re really bad at playing, have plenty of electricity, big amps and practice in a basement. We sounded so awful our vocalists quit one after another. Eventually somebody pushed me up to the microphone. And since I thought the lyrics for the cover songs we were playing stank and that we might as well be playing actual melodies instead of just angry strings of chords, I started writing songs. De Tusen Hjem never achieved world domination, but we did release a single, which was played frequently on local radio, at least once on national radio, and sold 25 copies.
When I finished university, I had an economics degree and the glimmering of a notion that I might like to write pop songs. I moved to Oslo and started working in finance, got bored and wrote songs. One night a young jazz bass player I knew listened to some of my songs. The next day we started a band, Di Derre. A year later we were touring. Two years later we had a recording contract. Our second album became the best selling album in Norway in years. Our concerts sold out in hours. And suddenly we were pop stars.
However, I had seen what happened to other musicians who turned their hobby into a job, and I knew it would demand too many compromises as far as my music, and my life, were concerned. So I hung onto my day job as a stockbroker while we continued playing gigs. I also studied to become a financial analyst. When I got headhunted by DnB Markets, the largest brokerage firm in Norway, to build up their options division, I had to commit to two years with them. In other words, I had more than enough to do. I performed at night and worked during the day. After one year I was so burned out that I hated everything and everyone I worked with, including myself. I told my band and my boss that I needed six months off. Then I hopped on a plane to Australia, to get as far away from Norway as I could. But I took my laptop with me.
The reason I brought my laptop was that a woman from a publishing company had proposed I write a book describing life on the road with the band. That engendered a whole new way of thinking and I realized I was ready to take the leap and write a novel. It was just a question of getting started. But it had to be a story about what Aksel Sandemose claimed were the only two things worth writing about: murder and love.
It takes about thirty hours to fly from Oslo to Sydney. And in those thirty hours I came up with the plot for a story I started writing as soon as I got to the hotel. It was the middle of the night, I had jetlag and I wrote about a guy named Harry who landed at the same Sydney airport, was staying in the same hotel and had jetlag…
When I returned from Australia I had almost finished the book. As soon as I set my suitcase down in my living room, I picked up writing again. I just wrote and wrote and was irritated by disturbances like hunger and the need for sleep. These were the best weeks of my life.
I sent the manuscript to a publisher, but under a pseudonym to make sure they wouldn’t be tempted to publish a crap book by a pop-star-turned-writer. The manuscript was delivered and my leave of absence was over. My first morning back at work I switched on my computer and realized I had almost everything: an apartment, no debt, an overpaid job and a great band. The only thing I didn’t have was time. My father had died two years before: the very same year he had retired and was going to start writing the book he had been planning about his experiences during the Second World War. But his time ran out. And I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to me. So, before my computer screen was up and running, I was standing in my boss’s office explaining that I didn’t have time to work for him any more.
I spent the next three weeks wondering what to do. Until one morning I received a phone call asking if I were Kim Erik Lokker. And then the brief message that my manuscript was going to be published.
At the publishing house they asked me why I had used a pseudonym and I explained that my
name was already well known in Norway. But when I told them my name they didn’t seem to recognize it. So I cleared my throat and explained that I was the vocalist for a well-known band. Still no response. I said the name of the band. Two of them nodded and one started humming a song. By another band.
The Bat was published in the fall of 1997 under my own name, and with a mix of elation and terror I waited for the reviews to deal with that pop music guy who dared to write crime fiction! But the reviews were on topic, serious and focused on the book, not on me as a person. And, best of all, they were positive.
I went to Bangkok in the winter of 1998 with the synopsis of what would become The Cockroaches. When I got there I realized things weren’t going to work out: I was planning to stay for two months and I was already feeling claustrophobic. And yet, two weeks later I was in love with the city. I didn’t notice the noise, liked sweating, and felt that air should have a smell, a taste and a color. And once again I was following in Harry’s footsteps—or he in mine—through Chinatown, on boats on the Chao Phraya River and in go-go bars in Patpong.
I discovered that I had learned a lot from the first book. I was better at the craft of writing and had picked up a few pointers on composition. At the same time, I was under more pressure now because I knew that writing was what I wanted to do, and after The Cockroaches there was no guarantee I would get another book published. From my time in the music industry I knew that the public’s memory was short, and that if The Cockroaches flopped I would be back to square one.
When I returned from Bangkok my publisher called and told me that The Bat had been awarded the 1997 Riverton Prize for Best Norwegian Crime Novel. I was pleased, of course, but also a little skeptical. It had been too easy! So I counted up the Norwegian crime novels that had been published that year, subtracted the authors who had already received the prize since I had heard people usually only won once, disregarded the books the reviewers hadn’t liked, and realized that I must have won the prize through a process of elimination.
A month later I found out that The Bat had also been awarded the 1997 Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel. Then I figured maybe I shouldn’t think about these things so much and just enjoy the moment. I was unlikely to experience anything like this again.
When I saw the headline in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, I knew enjoying the moment had been the right thing to do. I was witnessing my first devastating review. So when I learned that The Cockroaches had been accepted as the main book in the National Book Club’s New Books section—the golden ticket into a commercial and literary elite in Norway—I knew that it was actually thanks to its predecessor, The Bat.
So I sat down and started writing The Redbreast. It was the story my father had wanted to tell, about Norwegians on both sides of Nazism during the Second World War. About the mythical self-image of the Norwegian people and a nation actively resisting Hitler. About why people make the choices they do and the victor’s privilege of writing history.
If writing the first two books was like playing a solo on an acoustic guitar, this was like directing an orchestra. When it was finished I knew that if the critics slaughtered the book or if it failed commercially, I would have to give up writing and find something new. Because The Redbreast was simply the best I had to offer.
When the book came out, it was more with a sense of relief than pleasure that I gradually realized I had done quite well. The publishers were enthusiastic, the reviewers were enthusiastic and the public was enthusiastic. The book won the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize in 2000 for best novel of the year.
In Nemesis, which came out in 2002, I set the plot almost entirely to Oslo, more precisely on the very street where I lived. As a private citizen, Harry gets drawn into the story via a former girlfriend from many years ago, who is found dead. And the tension between Harry and his adversary, his colleague Tom Waaler, continues. In terms of content, Nemesis is an obvious follow-up to The Redbreast and—the way I see it—has more in common with the first two Harry Hole books in terms of its structure and narrative. The book was well received and was awarded the William Nygaard Prize.
The Devil’s Star picks up where Nemesis left off, set in Oslo during a July heat wave, and once again with Tom Waaler as a central character. But he remains a riddle. The overarching Waaler storyline—a person who in many respects is very similar to Harry and reflects his psyche and moral dilemmas—runs through The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Devil’s Star, and so it would be natural to view them as an Oslo Trilogy. The Devil’s Star came out in fall 2004, became my greatest commercial success thus far, and paved the way for my books to be published abroad. Until that point I had been translated into six languages and was known as “an exciting, exotic Scandinavian crime writer.” But in spite of all that, I sold relatively few books outside Norway.
I finished The Redeemer in the summer of 2005, after having spent more than two years writing it. The inspiration for the plot came partly from the Salvation Army, partly from the siege of Vukovar on the border between Croatia and Serbia in 1992, and partly from the seedy side of Oslo around the now closed junkie hangout, Plata. I know a little about the Salvation Army after having worked with them on a charity recording and concert. The background story of the young Croatian hitman comes, at least in part, from a dramatic story a Croatian captain told me when I was writing Stemmer fra Balkan [Balkan Voices, non-fiction] in 1999. And you used to be able to stroll over to a war zone closer to home any night of the week—nighttime Oslo at the Plata—and study it close up. You still can, although Plata itself no longer exists.
I was wildly excited when I finished The Redeemer and was surprised to find more resistance from the publisher than I had encountered with any of my earlier books. I had already cut almost a hundred pages from the novel and I cut even more. The new version felt so pared to the bone that I was afraid I had killed it. At one point I asked my editor what he thought about dropping the book altogether and starting on a new one. Perhaps I had been affected by the fact that we could feel mounting expectations from all sides after the success of The Devil’s Star. In addition, The Redbreast had been voted Norway’s Greatest Crime Novel of All-Time by NRK [Norwegian Public Broadcasting] and the Book Clubs. Suddenly there was a long way to fall.
So it was with a certain dread-tinged excitement that we launched The Redeemer in the fall of 2005. The critics descended on the book, and the first review appeared the day after the book was released. It was a Saturday and my editor called to warn me that the review in Dagsavisen was quite dismissive. And one bad review usually presages more. I had the weekend to steel myself for the rest. On Monday morning I looked myself in the mirror, knowing I was facing five days of interviews and that I would be looking five years older by Friday. However, when the dust settled, the conclusion was clear: the bad review given by Dagsavisen was the only one; the others were, in a word, overwhelming. And the public was not slow to react. The head of my publishing house called to tell me that The Redeemer was the fastest-selling fiction book in the history of the company. Five days had passed and it was already, for lack of a more precise or profound expression, a fantastic success. And I can remember promising myself I would enjoy the moment without feeling guilty or suffering the paranoia I imagine extremely beautiful women must feel: the feeling that people like you for reasons you actually despise. Quite the contrary, I ordered a T-shirt that said BESTSELLER on it. On the other hand I’ve never found the right occasion to wear it. Well, I suppose I can always beat myself up for being too chicken.
I spent 2006 writing a few songs for Di Derre’s Farewell and Best Of album, and then doing the launch and the subsequent farewell tour. The tour was a heartwarming encounter with a large, loyal audience. But I also discovered something else: in the popular consciousness I was no longer a musician who wrote books, but a writer who played in a band. When I started writing the next Harry Hole novel, The Snowman, I noticed that things were starting to happen abroad. My agent started calling more and more often, and more and more contracts were arriving in the mail from countries further and further away from Norway. My Harry Hole novels have been translated into more than forty languages, but I still get a huge kick out of it when a book arrives in the mail and the only word I recognize is my own name on the cover.
The Snowman was released in June 2007. Not only was it unheard of to release a book in the middle of summer—after all, it was generally agreed in the Norwegian publishing world that books with a certain sales potential should be released in the fall—but was it really going to be called The Snowman? Yes, of course.
Again reviews were positive and The Snowman was to become the fastest-selling novel in Norwegian history. And for the first time in many years I took a sort of summer vacation. It didn’t last very long. For many years I had been toying with an idea for a children’s book. It had started with my daughter who, as usual, had asked me to make up a story while we were eating dinner. So I made up Nilly—a tiny, red-headed ten-year-old boy with an Elvis quaff and the banter of a used car salesman; his neighbor and best friend Lisa; two fat, nasty twins with a Hummer-driving father; and a fairly eccentric professor who had accidentally invented the world’s most powerful fart powder.
Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder came out in October 2007, and I was apprehensive about the reviews. After all, this was a book they were allowed to slaughter. My worries proved to be groundless. The book was greeted with unanimous enthusiasm. Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder was nominated for Ark’s Children’s Book Award 2007 and sales took off, probably significantly aided by a popular talk show that interviewed me. They flew in the Methane Man, a tall, thin man dressed in superhero spandex. He used extremely audible farts to blow out candles on a birthday cake and “sing” hymns. A quarter of the entire population of Norway, myself included, laughed until we were screaming.
In November 2007 I published a novella titled The White Hotel. All the revenue from the sales went to Save the Children. And I think I can hear you yawning now as you wait for me to tell you how overwhelmingly positive the reviews were. But it was only reviewed in one place. The reviewer liked the project, but hated my contribution. I read the review twice and I’m sad to say he made some good points.
All the same, 2007 was a fantastic year for me. I was awarded the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize for the second time, this time for The Snowman. Furthermore, the Harry Hole books had started appearing on bestseller lists abroad. So what do you do when everything is going so well? Yes, that’s right, you start writing something completely different, forcing yourself to take risks, and thereby discover a new world. This way the fear of failure will increase the pleasure in any success you might achieve. This time the project was a story about a headhunter at a recruitment firm. He uses the FBI’s nine-step interview model on job candidates and is married to a woman who is much too beautiful and whom he must rely on art theft to finance. One day a Dutch man turns up for a job interview. It turns out he has a missing Rubens masterpiece hanging on the wall at home… The title was Headhunters. It topped the sales charts from the moment it came out in the summer, and again the critics were very kind. Apart from one, from my hometown paper in Molde, who just didn’t like the book. I read the review carefully. And even though Headhunters received The Norwegian Readers’ Prize for 2008, I thought—and still think—that the critic in Molde had good arguments.
I also made a decision that was very important for me. But not until Greedy Jo had had a serious discussion with Decent Jo. The decision was that all the income from Headhunters, domestic and international, would go towards a plan I had been mulling over for a while: basic reading and writing classes for children in the third world. My motivation was principally twofold. I have been privileged enough to be able to travel all over the world, and what this traveling has taught me is that the ability to read is a basic prerequisite for citizens to find their bearings in society so that genuine democracy can exist and so that those same citizens can create a better life for themselves and their families. Besides, I had also realized that I did not have—and would never have—a lifestyle that matched what was gradually becoming a rather large amount of money in my bank account. And there were surely plenty of other very human motives there, too: feelings of guilt that things had gone absurdly well, the need to be liked, to buy myself karma, an indulgence, redemption, etc. But I do not imagine that self-analysis by an overpaid Norwegian writer is very important to an Indian girl who receives ten years of schooling and can return home to her village afterwards, perhaps as a teacher, and be a role model for other girls and mothers.
So we set up a foundation, the Harry Hole Foundation, which would award an annual prize called A Decent Guy or A Decent Lady, and a stipend that the prizewinner, with the help of a committee, would invest in literacy projects. And the following year, in 2009, we did just that. The Decent Guy prize went to a prison chaplain, Odd-Cato Kristiansen, and the stipend went to the Naandi Foundation that helps provide schooling for deprived girls in India.
In 2008 I published my second children’s book, Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder: Bubble in the Bathtub, a flatulent romp through French history, which was short-listed for Ark’s Children’s Book Award, but didn’t win, eliciting the following question from a journalist: “How does it feel to lose for once?” For someone who has definitely not succeeded at everything in life, it feels strange to realize that in some circles I have been branded a kind of golden boy who can do no wrong. But of course there are heavier crosses to bear, and I promise to do everything in my power to make sure that this illusion lasts for as long as possible before the bubble bursts.
That would certainly have happened in 2009 if I had published the Harry Hole novel that I had just finished writing. To put it plainly, it was bad. And I knew it. I had sent the manuscript to my editors after spending two months writing a first draft that in a way was brave and different, but that didn’t work. It felt like applying make-up to a corpse. So when we met in the summer of 2008 and, as usual, my editors made comments that on the surface might have seemed like minor details, this confirmed for me that they had read the novel the same way I had. I told them I was going to drop the publication. There was a long silence and a couple of gaping mouths around the table, and they argued that these things could be fixed. But, deep down, I knew that the problem was the basic foundation, the scenario, the premise of the whole story. It couldn’t be helped that it was almost two years of work. And as I left the meeting, I felt relieved and confident that I had done the right thing.
Then I sat down and wrote The Leopard. It was my longest and most labor-intensive book so far. I did research in the Congo and Hong Kong, studied torture weapons and interviewed avalanche experts, scuba divers and rock climbers. And it was also my most brutal book. I had already started Harry’s physical deconstruction in The Snowman, and this continued in The Leopard. Because Harry is like all of us; we fall apart. The only question is how fast. This book was also well received in Norway, but it might have been the first time I noticed that there was so much interest in the books that the reviews probably wouldn’t have that much impact on the sales. In the end, the book broke the previous sales records in Norway and also sold more than ever in most of the other markets.
I received something in Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet that I don’t think I ever had before: an unqualified trouncing by a reviewer who felt that the book sensationalized violence. The review seemed so emotionally charged that I could only conclude that The Leopard not only wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but a tea that really stuck in some readers’ craws, a book whose brutality and scenes of violence could truly alienate readers. I received many questions about the use of the torture device Leopold’s Apple in particular. For example, whether it really exists. And another question started coming up: How do you come up with these things? Meaning: What kind of sick, perverted mind could come up with such ideas? I tried to look within myself, to ask if the violence in the book was really appropriately calibrated for the purpose: to say something about the character behind it. Or if I had let myself be lured into sensationalism, effects for the sake of effects and a callous fascination with suffering. There was a time when I flung American Psycho at the wall because it made me physically ill, made me feel polluted just from reading it in all its splendor. Had I now created just such a book, one that had become a sort of guilty pleasure for closet sadists? If there was any comfort, it was that The Leopard was selected as the year’s best crime novel by the Danish Academy of Crime Writers, topped the bestseller lists in Norway, Finland and Denmark, and for the first time Harry Hole made it onto Der Spiegel’s bestseller list in Germany, where it reached as high as No. 3.
At the same time another piece of news came sailing in. I was on my annual writing trip in Asia when I heard that Nemesis had been nominated for the Edgar Award as best novel in the U.S. The award is viewed as a sort of the Oscar for books, also in the sense that pretty much only American books ever win it. I was surprised since I do not personally consider Nemesis to be my best book. I figured it was a sort of compensatory nomination since my standard prize-winning novel, The Redbreast, had flown under the radar when it was released in the U.S. and hadn’t been discovered until a core group of mystery enthusiasts picked it up later and started discussing the book on the Internet. I was quite sure Nemesis wouldn’t beat out the other five highly qualified nominees, but went to New York with my agent Niclas with two shared goals: to finally have the time and energy to get drunk together and to congratulate the winner in a way that sounded genuine. However, my friend Henrik Mestad, who’s been nominated for a number of acting awards, told me that no matter how sure you are that you won’t win before you go, something strange happens in the seconds before the winner is announced: you become COMPLETELY convinced it will be you. I blew that off, of course, and then of course that is just what happened. In the seconds before John Hart’s name was announced as the very deserving winner, I thought, “Who am I going to thank?” And, “What is the quickest route to the stage?” On the other hand, that gave Niclas and I something to laugh about when we started working on the evening’s remaining goal.
In the fall of 2010, Doctor Proctor and the End of the World. Maybe, was released, the third in the series. It was clear that both the series and the author now had an established fan base, because the book went right up to No. 1 on the general Norwegian bestseller list, which is unprecedented for a children’s book. The exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Oslo that accompanied the release was also unusual. “Doctor Proctor’s Sensational Exhibition of Animals You Wish Didn’t Exist” was created by Pjotr Sapegin, Kristine Grüner and their employees at an animation studio, and was based on the animals in the Doctor Proctor books: the Mongolian water vole, flesh-eating flying fish, rhinoceroses with colds, toadstools that eat children and other unsavory creatures. The book won the 2010 Norwegian Critics Prize and before the ceremony I got a message from my daughter to say that I should accept the prize on her behalf, since after all she was the one who had asked me to come up with a story about a crazy professor, a tiny, hilarious boy and a very heroic girl who was a little like her.
The Leopard was released in the U.K. in 2011 and expectations were high, since The Snowman had made it to No. 2 on the paperback list. Both my publisher and my agent were through the roof with joy (let alone myself as the author, although I didn’t have much of a roof where I was at that time) when word came that The Leopard has reached No. 1. When I went on a U.K. tour in March 2011 I realized that something had happened. I had readers! And they were lining up outside the store and around the corner to have their books signed in the same stores where I had sat drumming my fingers a few years earlier.
As I write this, I’m about to tour the U.S. for the launch of The Snowman there. In spite of the Edgar nomination and reviews, the series has not reached a big audience over there, so it’ll hardly be like in the U.K. Or in Poland where I recently accepted a prize and two teenage girls, who had run away from home somewhere further north in Poland, were standing in front of the place where the ceremony was held hoping to meet and maybe get a picture with their hero. Of course, I’m afraid the hero they wanted to see was Harry Hole and that they were a little disappointed that the author was over fifty years old, shorter than 1.94 meters, and didn’t have a scar extending from the corner of his mouth to his ear. But as we took the picture of the three of us together and I heard the younger of the two let out a timid, contented sob, I felt a little like a pop star again. So now it’s about time to head to the U.S. and come back down to earth, ground myself in reality and start from the beginning again. I’m looking forward to it.
Summer 2013. I read through my biography, see what expectations I had before to going to the USA in 2011. They were far exceeded. By its very nature, an author’s biography focuses on the professional aspect of the author’s life, and I realize that the development in this part of my life has actually been rather unexciting until now.
Phantom was published in summer 2011 and history repeated itself in terms of reviews and new sales records. That autumn, I was standing backstage in Toronto, Canada, waiting to go on. I was trying to impress some festival volunteers in the meantime by balancing a broom on my chin, when my phone rang. The news was delivered in high-frequency Swedish: The Snowman had made it onto the New York Times bestseller list! I had to hang up as I was being introduced on stage, so on I went and talked about Harry Hole, Scandinavian crime fiction, and myself. I concentrated on this so much that I forgot about the news. Until the very end of the interview. Then I told the audience that I had just found out that the book I’d been talking about for three quarters of an hour was in the NY Times bestseller list. Perhaps I told them because I was on my own, so far from home and there was no one else to share it with. Or perhaps it was because it would feel strange to keep it secret and not say anything. Or did I crave the applause that I naturally got? Was that why I felt slightly ashamed as soon as I’d said it?
A year later, during the ITV Crime and Thriller Awards in London, I would hear one of the prizewinners use the expression an “embarrassment of riches”. When I asked about it, I was told that it came from Shakespeare. We don’t have an expression like that in Norwegian, possibly because the embarrassment of excess has historically not been a problem in a country where poverty was relatively evenly distributed.
But obviously, nothing is more irritating than a guy who is successful and then apologizes for it. So I’m not going to make big point out of the fact that I was only number nine on the NYT list, which means there were at least eight authors who were selling more books, and that I then slipped off the list again, and that when I was on tour in the USA I was never recognized, not even when I came to the bookshops for my own events, or that it was the same eighteen pensioners as last time who woke up when I came through the door of the same library in San Francisco. Instead, I will tell you that when I was interviewed by King James Ellroy of Los Angeles, he used such long, intricate and for me unknown English words to describe the The Snowman that I – no matter what they meant – felt honored.
In 2012, Doctor Proctor and the Great Gold Robbery was published, a book that I in an unguarded moment had promised a school class I would write. But not only because I didn’t know that children forget promises, I also quite wanted to write the book. The greater part of it was written in February 2012, on planes, in airports and hotel rooms in Australia and New Zealand where I was on tour, and my friend Erik had come with me for the rock climbing. Travelling has somehow become different. Maybe it’s because I’ve passed the fifty mark, but when I left Wanaka, an incredibly beautiful place on New Zealand’s South Island, I realized that I would probably never go back there again. It’s not true that the world is small, but it is true that life is short.
At this point, I had already written the follow-up to Phantom. I originally thought it would be a sequel, a Phantom II, to be published three months after Phantom without any marketing. I had created a cliffhanger in Phantom and then stopped. The idea was to use the extreme possibilities that the series format has to offer: the readers’ expectations of a continuation, that they accept the premise of an impossible cliffhanger, in much the same way as a locked room mystery. But the follow-up grew into its own beast, with its own theme. I realized it was an independent book and decided to postpone publication until summer 2013, so there would be some distance between it and Phantom. The publishers and I gave it the tentative the title Police.
In autumn 2012, I had a new tour in the USA. The plan was to travel from there directly to Thailand, where I would meet my daughter who was coming from Oslo. A few fantastic months. But the trip was now accompanied by a somber background music that could not be turned off. My little brother, Knut, who played with me in Di derre, was seriously ill. For a long time, I had hoped that everything would be okay, but when I was climbing in Greece in September, Knut had phoned to say that the doctors weren’t as optimistic as they had been earlier in the summer.
“They say I won’t be playing in the band next autumn …”
I was standing on my own between a scooter and two goats on a rocky mountainside in the sun in Kalymnos, and I didn’t know what to say, all I could see was the empty space to my left on the stage where he was bloody well supposed to stand, and I heard my brother laugh and say: “Jo, don’t you go falling apart now.”
He wouldn’t let me stay at home in Norway, but he promised he would tell me in good time if things got critical. I hesitated, as I know we have elephant tendencies in our family: we like to sneak off somewhere to die alone.
“I won’t keep you in the dark,” he said. “I want you to be there when it happens.”
So I went.
In Minneapolis, I went to a climbing center and pulled a muscle in my back. I woke up the next day, managed to get myself out of bed, bent-double, and was told that Hurricane Sandy had hit New York, so I had to stay in Minneapolis. And not that there’s anything wrong with Minneapolis, but I just couldn’t think of anything else to do apart from go back to the climbing center. I had to be carried out. Quite literally. My back was agony, and would only get worse over the next two months. For the rest of my time in the USA, I used a house that Salomonsson Agency had rented in Los Angeles as a base. Lived and played Hollywood for a while, together with my agent Niclas, Malin and Petter, pitched film ideas to film producers, studios and each other, and ended up selling The Son, a half-finished book, at an auction that closed deep into the night when Warner Brothers put in the winning bid, while we sat in one of those unreal clubs with a view over that unreal town and clinked our glasses, and I thought that this is just as funny and fantastic as it is in films about the film industry, then ordered another drink to dull the pain in my back.
When Molde Fotballklubb, the football club that we’d grown up with and played for, played a decisive game and won the championship, I talked to Knut while I watched the game on the Internet. He was so happy it made me cry.
Hawaii, Tokyo, Bangkok. I spent Christmas on my own in a room, on painkillers.
Then finally I was at my climbing and writing place in south Thailand, together with my daughter in the same old bungalow. But the melancholy music was still playing in the background.
Niclas and his partner My, a documentary film producer, joined me in Thailand. I wrote, worked out, got my back sorted, climbed, filmed, and then we were told that I Am Victor, a TV series based on a synopsis I’d written for a possible book, had been selected for a pilot by NBC. Sun and music in a minor key.
Indonesia. Borneo. I climbed my first 7c grade route. Music in minor.
South Korea had to be cancelled. Knut had got worse. As I suspected, he was underplaying it, so I had asked Kari Anne, his partner, to tell me the truth. I went home. And was holding his hand when he died a week later.
Police was published in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands in June 2013. It took everything to another level. I don’t think we’ll really understand which level until some time has passed. We hired Rockefeller for the launch party, the biggest club in Oslo, where our band had played so many gigs. Some of my favorite artists played, and for the last song – a Di derre hit – I got up on stage and sang. Looked out at the floor, at the galleries, at the sea of people in front of me. There’s a guitar solo in the middle of the song. I looked to my left. To where he should have been standing.
Police is dedicated to Knut Nesbo. Soccer player. Guitarist. Friend. Brother.
Translated by Tara Chace and Kari Dickson
ABOUT HARRY HOLE
Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels are complex, ambitious constructions where suspenseful and fast-paced crime plots reflect our globalized modern world. Although Oslo is the background for Nesbo’s stories, the nature of contemporary crime pitches Harry against challenges in such remote corners of the world as Australia and Thailand, which lend the novels a truly international feel. However the key to Jo Nesbo’s international success, at least in part, lies in his highly original, yet utterly believable protagonist, Detective Harry Hole. A cult figure already after the first book, Hole is a genuine anti-hero; an impossible character yet impossible not to like. According to his superiors, Harry is both the most competent detective of the Oslo Police and the worst civil servant. A periodic binge drinker seriously opposed to any type of authority, Hole roams the streets of Oslo like a lone ranger, doling out justice his way. At times suspended and generally considered a nuisance by his employers, Harry is nevertheless in some sense revered by his colleagues, for he is a good cop whose high moral standards and pronounced sense of justice often lead him in the right direction. In his personal life, however, his famous ‘inner compass’ seems to have broken down completely. Harry is tormented by the complicated relationship with Rakel, the single mother whom he fell in love with in The Redbreast and who has since walked into and out of his life at regular intervals due to Harry’s workaholic and alcoholic tendencies. He cannot let go of the woman who has proved to be the love of his life. And the feelings are mutual. Although Rakel has other relationships, she always returns to Harry; the two of them cannot seem to live without each other, nor with each other, though that is perhaps what they both desire. Harry has also developed a close relationship with Rakel’s son Oleg, for whom he has become a tough father figure. Like Harry’s little sister Sis, Oleg brings light to Harry’s existence, and life, at times in the series, really does seems to come together for Inspector Hole. But all too often, Jim Beam barges in and turns everything upside down.
In the eleven stories to date, the reader is taken along on a fantastic journey through the ever-expanding literary universe of this fascinating character. Like all truly important crime writers, Jo Nesbo combines refined, complex plotting, high voltage suspense and brilliant characterization with profound ethical discussions, often using updated biblical narratives to mirror contemporary society. Thus the crime novels of Jo Nesbo become challenging investigations into questions of betrayal, faith and revenge, while providing first-rate entertainment for the crime fiction lover.
Harry Hole’s Curriculum Vitae
Harry Hole is in his late thirties. Born in Oppsal, Oslo, he is unmarried, with one great passion and several smaller ones behind him. No children, but on occasion a kind of father to Oleg, Rakel”s son. Lives in Sofies gate in Bislet, Oslo.
Tall, athletic, lean. Blonde hair, machine-cropped. Stands up one centimetre from large, bumpy skull. Skin white, nose large, with a network of thin veins. Pupils are blue with that faded look long-term alcoholics get. Harry”s mouth is his best feature and what women tend to fall for.
Graduated from Police College and Law School, grades marginally above average. Special investigator for Crime Squad in Oslo. One-year course with FBI in Chicago, specialising in serial killers. Short stint with Politiets Overvakningstjeneste – POT/ Norwegian Secret Service – before returning to the Crime Squad.
Bjarne Moller, Head of Crime Squad and Harry Hole”s superior officer, describes Harry as the best investigator in the department and the worst public servant. By which he means Harry’s anti-authority, anti-sobriety, anti-rules-of-the-game attitude which makes him a danger to himself and those around him. Does his utmost to protect himself and his department. And Harry. Moller is Harry’s guardian angel, all that stands between him and dismissal.
Stig Aune, psychologist and police advisor. Has treated Harry for alcoholism and become a personal friend. The only one, except for Oystein.
Oystein Eikeland, taxi-driver and Harry’s sole childhood friend from Oppsal. Thinks Harry ought to have a more liberal attitude to amphetamines.
Rakel, the woman he loves. Single mother. She and Harry try to live with and without each other; neither works.
Sis, his younger sister. The person Harry loves most after Rakel. Down’s syndrome. Feels like a big sister.
Jim Beam, contains 4O% alcohol, a loyal friend since Harry’s early twenties.
Music: likes everything from Sex Pistols to Duke Ellington. From Neil Young to Slipknot.
Film: His all-time favorite is The Conversation by Coppola. One of very few who consider Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers a masterpiece and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart complete rubbish.
Substance abuse: Alcoholism runs in the family. Started drinking heavily in his late teens, has tried most types of drugs. Views all drugs as anesthetics. Dry and sober most of the time, but with a furious and constant urge.
Sports: Cycling and pumping iron occasionally, cause he likes the purifying feeling pain gives him.
Ambitions and future plans
Ambition: To understand what evil is. And what love is.
Future plans: The near future looks dismal. After that it gets darker. And then it all goes to hell…