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Nordic Noir: Catching Oslo's Killer In 'Devil's Star'

Apr 10, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Norwegian author Jo Nesbo didn't always write thrillers. Before he became an award-winning crime writer, he was a stockbroker and a rock musician. Now, he's a major force in what might be dubbed "Nordic Noir" — he's written a series of eight thrillers featuring tough-guy, Oslo-based detective Harry Hole. The fifth Harry Hole novel, The Devil's Star, has recently been released in the U.S.

In the Devil's Star, a serial killer is on the loose in Norway, leaving women dead with odd, star-shaped red marks on their bodies. It's up to Harry Hole to solve the case. He's pretty good at his job — but he's also a miserable drunk. Nesbo's character is reminiscent of a classic American type — the hard-boiled, crime-fighting, tough-guy cliche.

"When I came up with the character of Harry Hole I sort of had two choices," Nesbo tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "I could either try to avoid the sort of cliche of the police detective, or I could embrace the cliches and make them even bigger."

And that's what Nesbo decided to do — he placed the idea of the old, hard-drinking American detective in present-day Oslo.

"But I also wanted to give him an Achilles' heel," Nesbo says. So he made Hole a completely dysfunctional drunk. "He can't function when he starts drinking. That is sort of his Kryptonite."

Drinking aside, Hole is devoted to his career — it keeps him going.

"He is alcoholic, yes," Nesbo says, "But he is still the first guy at work in the morning. His apartment is very tidy. He tries to keep things in his life simple, because as soon as he starts drinking everything is chaos. ... When he is at the Police House, that is where he is at home — that's where he can be at his best. "

Nesbo's tough-guy, brooding characters have met a growing appreciation for "Nordic Noir" in the United States. Both the American detective genre and Nesbo's books favor simple language and straightforward imagery. Nesbo acknowledges the truth in the stereotype that Scandinavians are "people of few words."

"People are secretive," Nesbo says. "They aren't as open as they are, perhaps, in the United States and Southern European countries."

That secretive nature has been reflected for generations in Scandinavian literature.

"It's a tradition from the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen," Nesbo says. "He always wrote about people who had secrets in their family life and their private life. What often happened during the play was that the secrets were revealed ... that's what happens in crime stories, also. So in that respect, Henrik Ibsen was the first crime writer in Scandinavia."

Nesbo laughs at the suggestion that there is more than the average amount of darkness in the Scandinavian soul.

"The idea of the depressed Scandinavian people — it isn't really true," he explains. "It is true that we are a people of few words and that we don't find it easy to express our feelings, so we may come across as gloomy, you know, and a bit withdrawn. But ... people in Scandinavia are quite happy."

Nesbo believes it is the optimism of the Scandinavian people that draws them to crime fiction — he thinks Scandinavians find the drama and gloom of crime stories exotic.

But despite the alleged cheeriness of the Scandinavians — the hero of The Devil's Star suffers a great deal as he attempts to solve deadly crimes and get his chaotic personal life under control. Detective Hole's life is a mess, and Nesbo isn't promising it will get any better in subsequent books.

"I wish that I could have told you that, if you read one more book, everything is going to be fine," Nesbo says. "Some things are going to be fine ... but not everything. His life is very much a roller coaster."

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