The sun descends reluctantly over Norway's waterside capital, but novelist Jo Nesbo is determined to show Oslo's dark side, to convince me the real city, in parts, is as dirty, twisted and seedy as his own fictional version.
It's a tough sell in this city of bike helmets, clean streets and smiling blond people.
The author has written nine successful novels about the reckless Oslo police detective Harry Hole, a nonconformist with a mercurial mind.
Hole's most meaningful relationship is with bourbon, by the bottle. Booze is the detective's Achilles heel: He reaches for solace by the drop but often it just makes him more miserable.
Nesbo takes me to No. 5 Sophie's Gate in the hilly, cobblestone street neighborhood of Bislett. This is Harry Hole's fictional address. Yet Nesbo appears genuinely surprised to discover the real-life occupants have put Harry Hole's name on the doorbell.
As we stroll around Oslo, Nesbo says Harry tries not to get too close to people because nothing good ever comes of it.
"I think that is, you know, Harry's experience in life, and that is, that people that he loves, they will be taken away from him," Nesbo says. "His mother died when he was young. His first girlfriend committed suicide. Getting friendly with Harry is like getting bitten by a vampire."
The author, who is in his early 50s, is dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt and a blue sweat jacket. He's unshaven, though his face looks more like just-went-for-a-hike healthy rather than disheveled. He looks everything his alcoholic, hard-edged detective is not.
Nesbo's own addiction these days is rock climbing and rock 'n' roll. He tries to find time to write in between climbing and travel adventures.
And in between working as a crime novelist, Nesbo works as the lead singer in one of Norway's most popular pop rock bands, Di Derre. He's also been a successful stockbroker, a journalist and, early on, a star professional soccer player in Norway's premier league.
So, has he ever failed at anything?
"I was a really bad taxi driver," Nesbo says, laughing. "I only collided twice, but it was one time too much."
An Eerie Norwegian Night
We hail a taxi — one with a successful driver — and Nesbo instructs him to take us to Oslo's seedier sights. You know, heroin and hookers. Your typical Norwegian night out.
We head downtown through well-kept streets, past sharply dressed young professionals out for an evening drink. Nesbo is working hard to convince me Oslo has far more jagged edges than meets the eye.
"Yeah well, you see a woman over here? She's a working girl. It's not that busy right now," he says. "And down there on that plaza? They're dealing drugs."
Nesbo takes this slice of the city and runs it through his own creepy, fictional blender to get Detective Hole's Oslo.
Harry's dimly lit local haunt is based on the real-life local restaurant named Schroder's. Inside, photographs of 1920s brewery workers hang from dark, wooden walls and a no-nonsense staff serves up amber ale and overcooked beef. In Nesbo's novels, Harry often comes here to dry out a bit.
"I was sort of considering the idea when I invented the character, the idea of the, you know, traditional, hard-drinking American hard-boiled detective," he says. "But I decided that I didn't want that. So I made him a full-blown alcoholic."
Norway's Worst Attack
The novelist was enjoying a workout at a rock-climbing gym last July when Oslo was hit by real-life horror. Extremist Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb downtown and then gunned down kids on a nearby vacation island. In all, Brevik killed 77 people.
Nesbo calls it chilling, disturbing, more horrific than things he has dreamed up in his novels.
"I don't feel like there's an obligation to write about it. But I think it's inevitable that it will creep into my writing whether I want it or not because it's there, you know?" he says. "I was here in Oslo when it happened."
After a plate of meatballs and mashed potatoes, we head back outside to see if Oslo's streets have gotten any darker. Despite the late hour, it's still not quite noir enough. This is fitting, considering that Nesbo doesn't really consider himself as part of the Nordic Noir tradition.
That is, crime fiction as thinly veiled social criticism like the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. Nesbo has sold millions. He's had half a dozen best-sellers, and a film version of his bestseller The Snowman is set to be directed by Martin Scorsese.
Yet the promotional material for some of his books still calls him "the next Stieg Larsson."
"I'm not thrilled, but I'm not that annoyed either. I heard somebody in the U.K. now being branded as the new Jo Nesbo, so I guess he or she is probably a little bit annoyed, too," he says.
Nesbo's fascination with the gloomy side of his hometown seems at odds with his relatively sunny disposition. He is a nice guy and little resembles his morose characters.
"They say that every writer, they write about themselves. I think that's to a certain extent true, but also we are creators of fiction," he says. "So I do, you know, make Oslo into this city that does and does not exist, and Harry's a character that also exists and does not exist."
Nesbo then climbs out of the taxi onto his mountain bike and heads off into the Oslo night. It's rough out there, and Nesbo is one of the few not wearing a bike helmet.
Fiction and nonfiction releases from Jo Nesbo, Albert Brooks, Jo Ann Beard, James Tate and Stephen Baker.
Pining for another suspenseful summer in Scandinavia?
Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, which came to an uneasy end last May, has left many new Nordic mystery addicts feeling bereft. But, not to despair! Northern Europe is home to a seemingly inexhaustible reserve of cold-blooded thriller writers. And the hometown USA suspense squad isn't looking too shabby this season, either. Whether you crave reading about strange acts of retribution in the chill mists of Norway and Scotland; or resurrections of Hitchcock out of the fog of northern California; or battles with bullies in smoggy suburban Philadelphia and sooty mid-town Manhattan, this summer's mysteries will help you move on from fruitless longing for Lisbeth Salander and that dragon tattoo of hers.
By Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett; hardcover, 393 pages; Knopf, list price: $25.95
I once watched as mystery master Mary Higgins Clark teased a packed auditorium of her fans with this question: "What's the scariest sound you could imagine hearing if you were marooned in an empty house on a dark and stormy night?"
"A scream!" "A gunshot!" "The house alarm going off!" No, no, no. Finally, Clark put an end to the audience's agony: "The scariest sound you could hear in the middle of the night in a supposedly empty house is a toilet flushing."
I thought of Clark's brilliant observation as I was reading Jo Nesbo's latest thriller, The Snowman. Snowmen are jolly creatures, right? They stand in front of houses wearing gumdrop grins and colorful scarves. But, what if that snowman were turned around, so that, instead of facing the street, it was staring at your house? All of a sudden the ordinary becomes ominous.
Nesbo is rightly celebrated as Norway's most acclaimed thriller writer. (He won the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime, an honor also bestowed on Larsson and fellow Swede Henning Mankell.) The Snowman stars Nesbo's police detective antihero Harry Hole, who, like most of his tribe, drinks too much and has trouble sustaining relationships. When women in and around Oslo begin disappearing, Hole realizes that all of them have strayed from their marriages. Even odder, a snowman marks the spot where the disappearances have occurred. Here's a scene where Harry "interrogates" one of those sinister snowmen:
Harry raised his right hand. Clenched his fist. And punched.
The snowman's crushed head rolled off its shoulders and down onto the brown grass.
Harry punched again. ... His fingers formed a claw and bored their way through the snow and found what they were searching for.
What Harry discovers will forever change your attitude toward Frosty and his kin. The Snowman is a standout thriller, capable of disturbing your slumbers long after the first thaw.
Among The Missing
By Morag Joss; hardcover, 260 pages; Delacourte, list price: $25
Morag Joss, like Jo Nesbo, is a name known to obsessive mystery addicts but not so familiar to the more well-balanced reader. Joss' slim creeper, Among the Missing, is coming out at the end of June, and it's a tale to savor of elusive second chances.
A bridge collapse near Inverness, Scotland, brings together three lost souls: a former bus driver fleeing his sins; an illegal immigrant whose husband and toddler were swept away by the tragedy; and a desperate pregnant woman who uses the catastrophe as an opportunity to fake her own death. But, as we learn over the course of these pages, the past, no matter how weighted down by cinder blocks it may be, never quite stays submerged. Among the Missing will buoy up Joss' reputation as a crafter of eerie suspense.
What You See In The Dark
By Manuel Munoz; hardcover, 251 pages; Algonquin Books, list price: $23.95
Flying southwest from Scotland, a seagull, conceivably, might alight in Bakersfield, Calif. — the town whose ambiance contributed to one of the most iconic suspense thrillers of all time, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. OK, let's dump that seagull image. (It's for The Birds anyway.) Manuel Munoz's debut mystery, What You See in the Dark, takes flight from one of the cleverest suspense conceits I've encountered in a long time: Two young lovers become entwined in a doomed affair, while, at the same time, Hitchcock and his minions begin setting up their equipment in sleepy Bakersfield. Munoz uses the noir form to meditate on the evil spell that murder on the big screen casts on susceptible minds "in the dark." This atmospheric tale of twisted minds and small-town murder would've put a demented gleam in The Master's eye.
By Lisa Scottoline; hardcover, 384 pages; St. Martin's, list price: $27.99
Hitchcock was not known for exhibiting a feminist sensibility in his thrillers ... which is why we need Lisa Scottoline! Scottoline's suspense novels always give center stage to smart, funny women who don't realize their own "gal power" until Fate lobs them a disaster or two. Her latest stand-alone mystery, Save Me, is one of her greatest. Our accidental heroine is Rose McKenna, whose third-grader, Melly, was born with a birthmark on her face, thus making her a bully target. Rose volunteers at Melly's school in order to scope out the social scene. Here's her assessment of Melly's chief tormentor:
Amanda wasn't what people pictured when they heard the term "bully," but wolves could dress in sheep's clothing or Juicy Couture. Amanda was smart and verbal enough to tease at will, which earned her a fear-induced popularity found in elementary schools and fascist dictatorships.
When the cafeteria suddenly explodes in flames, Rose must make a "Sophie's choice" decision about whom to try to save first: Melly or Amanda. Even though Rose acts responsibly, she's threatened with criminal charges and "bullied" herself by the media and a cadre of uber-moms.
Save Me deals with a topical issue in a particularly gripping and nuanced way.
A Drop Of The Hard Stuff
By Lawrence Block; hardcover, 320 pages; Little Brown, list price: $25.99
Sometimes you open a novel and you just know you're in the hands of a master. In the case of Lawrence Block's latest Matt Scudder mystery, the tipoff is a brazenly simple plot premise, faultlessly executed. A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a prequel to the other 15 novels in the Scudder series. The opening finds Matt recalling the murder of a boyhood pal of his named Jack Ellery. Matt had reconnected with Ellery years ago at an AA meeting. Ellery was then working his way through the 12 steps and had just embarked on No. 9: making amends to people he'd harmed while he was drinking. Except someone silences Ellery before he can begin confessing to past crimes.
Like a lot of great mystery fiction, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is also a ghost story. Matt's attempt to exorcise his phantoms results in a classic tale about the stubborn persistence of memory and regret.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR's Fresh Air and teaches a course on detective fiction at Georgetown University.