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Move Over Stieg Larsson, It’s Time for Norway’s Jo Nesbo

I started reading Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman while on vacation over Memorial Day in Maine.  Four of Nesbo’s Harry Hole crime novels later, I find myself wondering, if Stieg Larsson hadn’t died, would the rest of the world have discovered Nesbo first? Or did it take the death of Larsson — and his resulting celebrity — to introduce the world to Nesbo’s far superior storytelling and talent?

You might have caught Jo Nesbo’s op-ed this past week at the New York Times with the literary title: “In Norway, the Past is a Foreign Country.”  As recently as June, Nesbo was cycling through the streets of Oslo with the Prime Minister, followed only by two bodyguards on bike.  Residents would pull up along side in cars to shake the Prime Minister’s hand.  Now the bombing, as Nesbo writes, has threatened Norway’s “naïve fearlessness of what was untouched.”

Nesbo’s novels are compelling not just because like all good mysteries, they keep you thinking, but they also bring you into Norwegian culture, city life and history, introducing you to one part naïve fearlessness and one part dark underbelly.  In the pages of his novels, you find the country’s struggles with far-right groups and Nazism.  Nesbo also writes of Norway’s increasingly multucultural make-up and the discrimination directed at groups ranging from Muslims to Roma. 

In fact, if you’ve read Nesbo’s novels, like me, you probably weren’t suprised when news spread that the Oslo bombings had been carried out by a right-wing extremist motivated by Islamophobia.

As Wendy Lesser writes at Slate, this might be why Nesbo has been slower to catch on then Larsson.  While Larsson titillates and shocks readers by adding to his mysteries sexual violence, Nesbo sets a higher cerebral and intellectual standard for his readers:

Nesbø asks you to know things about the world: about Norway’s involvement in the Second World War, about the nature of rural-urban migration in Scandinavia, about Eastern European gun-running, about the hierarchy of the Salvation Army, about DNA tracing, drug side-effects, and other medical technicalities, about …well, the list goes on and on.

Similar to Stieg Larsson though, Jo Nesbo didn’t start writing novels until relatively late in life.  From an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

It was a long journey. I thought I was destined to be a professional [soccer] player, but then I broke the ligaments in both knees. I formed a [band] with my brother and started working as a stockbroker. Our second album was a huge success. I had this strange idea that I wanted to keep my day job as a stockbroker, but I got totally burned-out. So I went to Australia, and while I was there I wrote my first novel. I’d seen friends start writing this big European novel they were never able to finish, so I wrote a crime novel. I thought I’d write something that was easy, that wouldn’t take too long. I was surprised and even scared when somebody wanted to publish it. I was like, ”Hey, wait, are you sure? Can I have another try and write something completely different?”

But unlike Larsson, Nesbo appears to have a balanced life.  He’s also the lead vocalist and songwriter for a popular Norwegian rock band and the author of a series of popular childrens books.  From an interview with the New York Timesdescribing his typical day:

Well, this date, March 11 is typical, so let’s have a look. Starting at midnight I was still writing. I went to bed at two, woke up at ten. I took some phones, rescheduled two interviews on Friday. My agent phoned me to remind me of this interview. Then I went to my breakfast place around the corner to meet with Marianne, the producer for the movie based on my stand-alone thriller “Headhunters,” which will start shooting in August. Then I went back home to do what I’m doing now: talking to you. Next I’ll pick up my daughter and a classmate outside school and we’ll go rock-climbing, indoors. After that we’ll have dinner with her mother and grandmother. I have to be home at eight to change and get my guitar, and Lars, my bass player, will pick me up at nine and we’ll play a gig at ten just fifteen minutes drive away. The sound engineer knows our setup and what we like, so no sound check, just an hour of songs and stories. Two voices, guitar, bass, harmonica, melodica and — hopefully — some applause. Then guitar-in-bag and straight back home for one beer, one chapter of writing and then to bed. Typical and just the way I like it.

Nesbo’s stand-alone mystery Headhunters was made into a Norwegian-language film and will be released this year in the United States.  A Hollywood version of the film is apparently in the works– says the LA Times— as is a film based on Nesbo’s serial killer thriller in the Harry Hole series The Snowman.  You can watch an interview with Nesbo below discussing Headhunters.


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