Sunday Times

FACT BE­COMES FIC­TION?

Jonas Bon­nier didn’t write true crime un­til he was asked — and in­tro­duced to the per­pe­tra­tors, writes Mila de Vil­liers

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Nordic noir is all the rage nowa­days — from Jo Nesbo to Hen­ning Mankel to The Killing — yet Jonas Bon­nier, au­thor of the Scandi true crime thriller The He­li­copter Heist, is “not at all in­ter­ested in crime or crime nov­els”. The He­li­copter Heist is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing read based on the 2009 Väst­berga he­li­copter rob­bery; the heist was ex­e­cuted by four men and one spec­tac­u­lar he­li­copter roof-land­ing. The four­some broke into a Group 4 Se­curi­cor (G4S) cash de­pot in Stock­holm, mak­ing off with 39-mil­lion kro­nor (about R88m). The crim­i­nals were caught. The money was never re­trieved.

Mar­keted as “true crime fic­tion” (much to the af­fa­ble Swede’s amuse­ment), Bon­nier states that he never con­sid­ered writ­ing a non­fic­tion ac­count of the heist, rea­son­ing that “I’m not a good non-fic­tion writer”.

Bon­nier was ap­proached by his agent to write the book; hes­i­tant at first, he was per­suaded when his agent asked him whether he would be in­ter­ested in meet­ing the per­pe­tra­tors. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve never met any of the char­ac­ters in my book be­fore’,” he laughs. (The He­li­copter Heist is his ninth book.) “It was an op­por­tu­nity to speak to the crim­i­nals, to tell their un­told story. I can’t even imag­ine this novel writ­ten by me if I hadn’t met them.” Meet­ing with them con­vinced him to write the book.

The ec­cen­tric mil­lion­aire char­ac­ter known as Zo­ran in the book (Bon­nier pro­vided pseu­do­nyms for the four perps) made a pro­found im­pres­sion on Bon­nier. He de­scribes the man as a “larger than life char­ac­ter” who had “just stepped out of a novel”. This ow­ing to the fact that “Zo­ran” or­dered a glass of luke­warm wa­ter which he didn’t touch once (a trait shared with the fic­tion­alised ver­sion of the crim­i­nal) and his wealth and ex­trav­a­gant life­style (think an­nual trips to the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val and horse races in Monte Carlo.)

“I fell so in love with this char­ac­ter!” says Bon­nier.

The other three per­pe­tra­tors who, despite pre­vi­ous in­car­cer­a­tions, re­main in­volved in Swe­den’s un­der­world, were ea­ger to meet Bon­nier. “There’s this hi­er­ar­chy in prison in Swe­den and if you’re a rob­ber you’re the shit,” Bon­nier ex­plains.

“And if you’re a rob­ber and you used a he­li­copter — to some ex­tent,” Bon­nier in­ter­rupts him­self, “I hadn’t used this word yet — but to some ex­tent I think they’re proud of what they ac­tu­ally did.”

Bon­nier main­tains that the char­ac­ters’ back sto­ries are “very ac­cu­rate”. Zo­ran aside, the char­ac­ter of Sami is a petty thief-turned­fam­ily-man who re­verts to his old ways; Michal, a charm­ing and savvy Le­banese

crim­i­nal who grew up in the im­pov­er­ished sub­urbs of Stock­holm; and the reck­less adren­a­line junkie, Nik­las, whose ap­petite for ad­ven­ture makes him agree to par­tic­i­pate in the heist be­fore one can say “Bloukrans bungee!”

Dur­ing the “hours and hours” that Bon­nier sat down with the four men, he did not once ask them about past crimes they’d com­mit­ted, but fo­cused on char­ac­ter sketches. “I asked them if they played Nin­tendo or Sega as kids. I asked them very spe­cific ques­tions that I needed to get out of them, like ‘if you walk up to a bar, what do you or­der?’”

Bon­nier be­lieves two mem­bers of the heist squad have read the book and knows for cer­tain that the Michal char­ac­ter had “loved it”. “I specif­i­cally asked him what his friends thought and he said ‘no, no — ev­ery­body on ev­ery end-sta­tion likes it’.”

“End-sta­tions” refers to the fi­nal stop of a Swedish sub­way route and they’re usu­ally in very rough neigh­bour­hoods. “So, the crim­i­nals en­joy it!” Bon­nier re­lays with un­bri­dled mirth.

As The He­li­copter Heist is based on true events, Bon­nier had to main­tain a bal­ance be­tween fact and fic­tion; he says it is “tricky”. Read­ers would reg­u­larly ask him if par­tic­u­lar pas­sages were true, and af­ter de­liv­er­ing his first draft to his pub­lish­ers, he was told that a cer­tain scene was not be­liev­able. “Well, that scene was some­thing true!” says Bon­nier.

Bon­nier used the ageold adage of truth-is­stranger-than-fic­tion to his ad­van­tage: “I re­alised that no­body would be able to tell the truth apart from fic­tion and if I had pre­sented the book as ‘pages one to five are true and then there’s some fic­tion’, I would have skipped the fic­tion parts. So I tell them it’s all true!” he chor­tles.

That the crim­i­nals were able to pull off the heist was “al­most un­be­liev­able”, says Bon­nier. He was fas­ci­nated by how the four­some went about plan­ning the heist: “I mean, to blow up a roof is not just to blow up a roof! You have to use so many dif­fer­ent tech­niques and find roofs in Stock­holm that are con­structed in the same way [as the roof of the GS4] and try it out.

“It’s amaz­ing! I re­ally en­joyed lis­ten­ing to them telling their sto­ries. I also learned a lot about ex­plo­sives,” he says, crack­ing up.

This is the first time Bon­nier set out to write com­mer­cial fic­tion and he de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence as more time con­sum­ing than usual as he had less free rein with the con­tent and was re­liant on the ad­vice of his pub­lish­ers and crime-fic­tion writ­ers. “I didn’t know how to write a crime novel.”

“I tried! I re­ally tried!” is the ex­as­per­ated re­sponse when asked whether he read any crime nov­els as prepa­ra­tion for writ­ing The He­li­copter Heist. “I watched maybe 40 movies — I love movies, and I gen­er­ally like crime and thriller,” says the Oceans 11 fa­natic.

Bon­nier isn’t the only fan of heist movies — his grip­ping romp has been com­mis­sioned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s pro­duc­tion com­pany and will be re­leased as a Net­flix film. Bon­nier is cred­ited as a co-pro­ducer which, ac­cord­ing to him, means that “I might be copied in one of the many e-mails that go around.”

Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, East­ern Prom­ises, Peaky Blin­ders) will be re­spon­si­ble for the script.

“This is a large pro­duc­tion, no way will they in­volve some ama­teur from Swe­den,” Bon­nier laughs. “But names are good.

Big names are good, es­pe­cially Jake Gyllenhaal.”

As for what’s next — if it doesn’t in­volve hav­ing to kill off a main char­ac­ter (“I get very, very at­tached to my char­ac­ters, as long as they’re alive they’re in­ter­est­ing”), or a dis­il­lu­sioned, di­vorced drunk­ard of a de­tec­tive as pro­tag­o­nist (this man re­ally has it in for his fel­low Scandi scribes!) — Bon­nier’s def­i­nitely in­ter­ested in try­ing his hand at a sec­ond true crime thriller. If only for the fact that the genre def­i­ni­tion makes him snig­ger. Ja, tak! @mi­lasekind

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 ??  ?? The He­li­copter Heist ★★★★Jonas Bon­nier, Bon­nier, R270
The He­li­copter Heist ★★★★Jonas Bon­nier, Bon­nier, R270

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