JO NESBO’S TASTE FOR BLOOD
Jo Nesbo has spent 20 years inflicting sudden, violent ends on the characters in his bestselling crime novels. So it seems appropriate that a few hours before I meet him in London, Death has, if not exactly stared him in the face, certainly given him a wink as it brushed past. Just as his plane from Oslo was about to land at Heathrow that morning, Nesbo tells me, it suddenly lurched skywards again. “There’s a long, long silence, it’s really still on board, everyone is waiting for the captain to say if something is wrong with the plane. And I thought, ‘OK, maybe this is it, who knows?’
“And then my first thought was, ‘OK, in that case, good, I don’t have to do all this book-release s---’” – he flashes me a no-offence grin – “‘and I don’t have to worry about the book because it’s all finished. My second thought was, ‘OK, I’m happy. I’m 56, and I’ve had a good deal.’ ” The problem turned out to be nothing more serious than another plane blocking the runway. “I was happy with that outcome too.”
Nesbo’s life to date certainly seems to have been successful enough to suggest some kind of Faustian pact has been entered into. Once one of Norway’s bestknown rock stars as a singer with the band Di Derre (“Those Guys”), he is now internationally famous as the creator of the erratic sleuth Harry Hole, with worldwide sales of more than 33 million books.
These days he has the look of a veteran rocker, the cragginess
Bestselling crime writer Jo Nesbo tells Jake Kerridge how a vampire found his way into the latest Harry Hole thriller ‘The novels are metaphors for whatever was going on in my life’
that suggests a life lived just the right side of too well. He combines good humour and self-deprecation with an earnest intensity. One can see why many of those at his book signings buckle at the knees.
Harry Hole excites possibly even more devotion than his creator, so his fans are relieved that, despite hints of retirement, and a four-year hiatus, he is returning in Nesbo’s deliciously dark new novel. “I was doing some research for another project, not crime fiction, and I was deep in the dark cellar of psychiatry, and I came across a reference to clinical vampirism. And I started to read about it, and I just knew there was the new Harry Hole novel.”
The Thirst sees a vampiric serial killer on the loose in Oslo, connecting with women on Tinder and then ending each date by biting them with giant metal dentures before mixing himself a smoothie with their blood, playing with typical ingenuity on a mixture of topical concerns and more atavistic fears.
“Clinical vampirism really exists,” says Nesbo. “It’s usually called Renfield’s Syndrome, after Dracula’s servant Renfield in the novel.
“I became interested in the psychiatry of drinking somebody’s blood. Does it stem from the myth of Dracula, does it come from the rituals of getting an enemy’s powers or even eternal life, or is it more an intimate thing, that the closest you can get to somebody is to drink that person’s blood?”
Only one man can save the women of Oslo, of course: Harry Hole, the alcoholic walking disaster area who becomes so obsessed with his new case that he fails to notice his wife is dangerously ill.
Since the last Harry book, Nesbo’s publications have included the eccentric novella Blood on Snow, about a hitman in love
with a deaf prostitute who cannot declare his feelings to her in writing because he is ashamed of his poor spelling. That book flowed from him, he tells me, “like when you write a song that you feel already exists, you don’t create it, you’re just getting it down on paper”, and he is now adapting it as a screenplay to be directed by the Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire.
I tell him that Blood on Snow struck me as a more personal project than the more mainstream Harry novels.
“Maybe,” he says, “but Harry Hole feels very personal to me too. We are different. Harry has no training whatsoever in being happy. I have some training.
“He is digging his own grave and I think he is longing for nothingness, and the things I do in life are more to feel alive. But he is the character who, when I look back, I see he has most to do with my own life.
“I only realised it when my books started to be translated and I had to read them again. My God, now it’s so obvious they were metaphors for whatever was going on in my own life when I wrote them.”
He declines to elaborate further. This caginess is typical of Nesbo, who is always vague about his personal life, except for his frequent and fond mentions of his daughter, from a marriage that ended in divorce. I remember him once being asked by a female audience member at a literary festival if he was single (something I have never heard any other author asked, incidentally) and he charmingly deflected the question with a skill that suggested he was an old hand at changing the subject.
I think I can see where Nesbo gets the inspiration in The Thirst for the “Holeheads”, the groupies who hang on Harry’s every word at police college. I wonder how he copes with the Nesbo-nuts, and all the rest of the “book-release s---,” when I strongly suspect he shares the view expressed by Harry in the book: “I do like people, I just don’t like being with them.”
“Well, I do like being with people but I have to have breaks,” he says. He remembers wistfully the time pre-superstardom when he went off to a hotel in Egypt to write and spoke to nobody for two weeks except waiters.
He certainly prefers solitude to the razzmatazz of showbiz. His 2007 novel The Snowman has been made into a film, to be released later this year, with Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole. Apart from a discussion about the character with the director Tomas Alfredson ( Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), he has had little input. “It’s no longer my story, that’s why I didn’t want to get involved.” Could he have been more involved if he wanted to? “Probably not,” he admits, laughing. “I think that Tomas is the kind of director who wants to tell his own story.
“I was in Oslo on the last day of shooting and they put me in a scene, just for fun. I was handling a dog, and you’ll probably see more of the dog than me.”
Nesbo knows that fortune can be fickle, and wonders if his particular brand of murderous mayhem will continue to be popular in an increasingly troubled world.
But he suspects that Harry Hole’s “Gotham City” version of Oslo, in which good eventually triumphs over evil, is seen as comforting by many readers. “I think that is reassuring to people,” he says. “More so in uncertain times than in peaceful times. And right now a lot of people are worried, and rightfully so.”
One of Nesbo’s few rivals for the crown of the world’s most popular thriller writer is Britain’s own Lee Child, who has spoken in the past of deliberately setting out to write bestsellers and succeeding because he understands how the majority of people think and feel. He claims to have correctly guessed the outcome of every General Election since the Seventies. Can Nesbo relate to that?
“No,” he says. “Getting popular is nice but you risk being corrupted by popularity. You will want the bestseller again, so you will automatically start asking yourself, ‘ What do people want?’
“And you have to remember what you started out doing was just what you wanted to write. You have to say to people, ‘This is what I write. If you happen to like the same thing you’re welcome, if not you can go somewhere else.’ ”
‘Having bestsellers is nice, but you risk being corrupted by popularity’
A life well lived: before he was an author, Jo Nesbo was a Norwegian rock star
Cold case: Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole in the upcoming film adaptation of The Snowman