I enjoyed BBC4’s documentary on Nordic Crime Fiction rather more than I expected. BBC4’s documentaries tend to cover topics that interest me, but often feel a little thin on content. However, as the estimable Uriah Robinson points out, this had a better than average selection of talking heads and managed to raise some interesting questions about Scandinavian politics and society in relation to its crime fiction. And while it couldn’t cover every author, it seemed to me to highlight a pretty decent selection. It was good to see Maj Sjowall interviewed alongside more recent names, and I enjoyed Hakan Nesser’s typically wry recognition that many current Scandinavian writers have been fortunate in riding a wave of interest that would inevitably eventually dissipate. ‘After all, we used to produce great tennis players, too,’ he added.
I was pleased also that the programme gave decent coverage to Jo Nesbo, who’s certainly emerged as my favourite among the Nordic contingent over the last year or two. His books now proudly carry a sticker proclaiming him as ‘the next Steig Larsson’. No doubt that’s what the publishers are hoping for in terms of sales, but as a writer I think he surpassed Larsson long ago. As the documentary suggested, his books perhaps have a slightly different feel from most Scandinavian crime fiction (or, at least, from most people’s idea of Scandinavian crime fiction) – a little wittier, more playful and certainly more bloodthirsty. I’ve enjoyed his books since they started appearing in the UK, mainly because I liked his main protagonist, Harry Hole, so much. While on the surface Hole fits the standard template of the Nordic cop – troubled, alcoholic, rebellious – I was most attracted by his downbeat humour, his constant compulsion not just to break the rules but to tweak the nose of authority. While all the books are excellent, I thought this year’s The Snowman was terrific – brilliantly plotted, full of genuinely chilling moments, gripping and surprising throughout. It’s quite rightly begun to garner Nesbo the attention he deserves.
I didn’t bother reviewing The Snowman at the time because everyone else seemed to have got there ahead of me and there wasn’t much to add. But I’ve recently been fortunate enough to pick up a copy of his latest book, The Leopard, due out in the UK in January (I’d like to give you the impression that this is due to some writerly inside track, but the truth is that they were selling copies in the airside W H Smith’s at Manchester Airport. It almost made up for the surreal experience of being stranded in the Channel Islands by snow). It’s another typical Nesbo tour de force, beginning with Hole, still recovering from the impact of the Snowman case, lost to the world in Hong Kong’s opium dens. He’s brought back, of course, and ends up pursuing an apparent serial killer along a path that takes him from the Norwegian mountains to the Congo. The plotting is as intricate and playful as ever, constantly toying with the reader’s expectations. And Hole remains a superb character, balancing investigatory genius against his urge to self-destruct, his anti-authority tendencies given additional spice by a turf war between the local police and Kripos, the national police agency. I suspect that particular plot thread may run and run.
I imagine Nesbo will not be to everyone’s taste. Some will find his style too discursive, his playfulness just irritating. There are certainly times when his brilliance at plot-twisting risks overwhelming his other talents as a writer – there’s a surprise in the middle of The Leopard which, although superbly managed, left me feeling uneasy about its psychological and narrative credibility. There’s a risk, too, that this book perhaps feels a little too similar to The Snowman – another ruthless killer, more snow-bound set-pieces, even some recurring devices. But there’s enough here that feel fresh, including some tremendously gripping moments, and anyone who enjoyed The Snowman probably won’t be too disappointed that Nesbo has taken us further into similar territory. But, given the way this series has developed, I’ll be very interested to see where Nesbo takes us next.