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Pop star. Famous crime novelist. Award-winning children's author. Professional soccer player. Stockbroker. Jo Nesbo will happily own up to all these and more besides. But don't ask this 51-year old Norwegian author feted as the latest Scandinavian crime sensation to account for his extraordinary success as a crime novelist. "I have no idea, and I'm not really sure I want to analyse it, " says Nesbo, whose intricately plotted books featuring the brilliant, alcoholic Norwegian detective Harry Hole have now sold over 11 million worldwide, up from five million two years ago. Yet he is quick to insist that his success has "been a slow burn. "
Slow burn or not, Nesbo has achieved an unprecedented level of success both in his native Norway and abroad, winning a swathe of prestigious awards - along with the most dedicated fans in the business - in little more than a decade. Following on from The Leopard, which hit Number 1 on UK hardcover lists last year, 2012 saw the release of the ninth in the series, Phantom, along with the release of a movie of his 2008 stand-alone novel Headhunters - all proceeds of which go to The Harry Hole Foundation which he set up to fight illiteracy. He's also sold film rights to his 2007 serial killer novel, The Snowman, to Working Title Films who've since signed Martin Scorsese to direct the movie adaptation of his seventh novel to feature Harry Hole. A deeply flawed hero who, says Nesbo, "is on a journey that's headed only one way, and that's more or less towards hell".
Indeed, he plunges Harry into an even greater hell in Phantom than he did in The Leopard, which prompted some critics to accuse Nesbo of using violence for violence's sake for the first time in his stellar career. But the hell in Phantom is as much psychological as physical as the deeply scarred former police inspector Harry returns to Oslo after three years in Hong Kong.
Nesbo admits it is a much darker book than any of its predecessors. Oslo too, he concedes, is, along with Harry, one of the main characters in the book. "Oslo has changed tremendously over the last 15-20 years, it used to be this almost innocent village, but the drug scene has always been quite ugly in Oslo. This is a successful social democratic country, one of the richest in the world, but that is definitely part of the picture, and for me as a writer, it's fascinating to have this paradox right in your face, " he says.
But he is quick to distance his fictional Oslo from the real Oslo which, he insists, has not changed in the wake of the Breivik massacre. "I think it's the same, more or less, " says Nesbo who wrote about his own and his countrymen's reactions to the massacre in the New York Times last July. He regards his fictional Oslo as being more "like a Gotham City version" of Oslo. "I'm not concerned with using the real world, which is the tradition of Scandinavian crime fiction. I see myself as an entertainer, not as a sort of missionary. But then again, I do think that culture and politics are entertaining, so if I can use it for entertainment I will. " Yet writing Harry, whose mental and physical destruction in the series he planned years ago has become really hard. "It's like torturing a friend. But as a storyteller you can't fight the gravity force within the story, within the character. It also means that the series has moved from being a more conventional crime series to something darker and more complex, " says Nesbo.
Like Harry too, Nesbo admits to an enduring and somewhat unholy fascination with the nature of evil that dates back to his childhood when he would observe a classmate plucking the wings off a fly with tweezers to see how it functioned. "I would like to be able to tell you now he's in jail, or something, but he's not. He's a normal, seemingly happy father of three, and that's even more disturbing. But I think there's a curiosity we all have with cruelty and pain. What is curiosity and what is cruelty? When do we cross the line between? Harry is also capable of being cruel. He has even committed murder himself when he didn't have to, so I think with the series, what I also want to show is that nobody has a monopoly on cruelty, " he says.
Nesbo first conceived of Harry Hole on a trip to Sydney, in 1997, where began writing the first in the series, The Batman, instead of the book he was contracted to write about life on the road as singer-songwriter with Norway's most successful band Di Derre. "My goal was to learn how to write a novel, send it to a couple of publishing houses, hopefully get some positive reactions, and then write real literature. " But 'real literature' lost out when The Batman won him a publishing contract and two major awards. Already feted as a popstar, Nesbo shot to literary stardom in Norway with his third novel, The Redbreast, which explored aspects of Norway's divided allegiances in WWII. Based on his father's war experiences, it remains "a very personal book for me. "
Since then he has shored up his fame in Norway and abroad with six acclaimed Harry Hole novels, one stand-alone and three children's books, based on the stories he used to tell his 11-year-old daughter about a crazy professor, Doctor Proctor. But of all his extraordinary successes, none seems to thrill him quite like that mysteriously growing fame he now enjoys in his hometown of Molde. Fame based solely on his abilities as a former Premier League soccer player, despite the fact of his injury-forced retirement at 17. "Now, for every year that passes they remember me as a better and better player. It's like I'm the lost Maradona of Norwegian soccer or something, which is, of course, not true, " he laughs, "but I'm not going to try to stop the myth from growing. "
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