He’s been a footballer, stockbroker, pop star and now a bestselling crime writer. Esquire meets “lucky” Jo Nesbø in Norway.
In one of Jo Nesbø’s publicity shots, he stares out from the hood of a grey sweatshirt, head tilted back, left eye obscured in shadow, the trace of a smile on his lips, like a wise (and athletic) monk. Which is more or less how he appears in person: a fit-looking 52-year-old in jeans and grey marl again, with a calm, direct manner and a glint in his gaze.
We’re in a hotel room in Oslo, Nesbø’s hometown, as well as that of Harry Hole, the terse, haunted detective he created (whose name Nesbø says it’s OK to pronounce the English way; the same goes for his own).
So you know who we’re dealing with: Nesbø’s crime thrillers have sold 11 million copies in Europe, or “one every 23 seconds” according to the British posters.
Just before Esquire’s visit, it was announced Martin Scorsese had signed up to direct the movie adaptation of The Snowman, Nesbø’s horror-tinged Harry Hole novel which came out in the UK in 2010 and went to number two in The Sunday Times paperback charts. (DiCaprio to play Hole? You wouldn’t bet against it.)
The way this story normally goes, the Scorsese news would be the long-awaited approbation for a lifetime as a struggling writer. The trouble is, Nesbø’s been good at things before. A lot of things.
First, football: as a teenager he played for top Norwegian side Molde FK until two torn cruciate ligaments put paid to his dream of playing for Spurs.
Then, music: in his twenties he started a band, Di Derre, which became one of Norway’s most successful pop acts (you can find a nice sepia-tinted video of them performing their big hit “Jenter som Kommer” on YouTube).
Then finance: he balanced pop stardom with a lucrative day job as a stockbroker and lived off his savings while he wrote his first novel, Flaggermusmannen (which translates as The Bat Man, but will be called something else when published in English later this year, for obvious copyright reasons).
Naturally, it won the 1997 Riverton Prize, Norway’s most prestigious crime-writing award, and the 1998 Glass Key award for Best Nordic Crime Novel.
Nesbø has now written nine Hole novels, most of them also award-winning - his most recent one published here, 2011’s The Leopard, hit number one in The Sunday Times hardback chart - plus a collection of short stories, a novella, a non-fiction book about Norway’s involvement in the Balkan war and three children’s books.
A stand-alone crime thriller, Headhunters, was also made into a movie that is now the most successful Norwegian film in history (it is released in the UK on 6 April). Frankly, his success rate is exhausting.
Surely, it can’t all have been as plain sailing as it sounds? “Yes,” says Nesbø, without embarrassment. “I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been more or less doing as I like for at least the last 20 years of my life. But when I knew I could make a living as a writer, nothing that’s happened since then can top that.”
Phantom is his new Hole instalment and in it Nesbø draws upon some of his past lives. It’s a gritty, pared-back thriller centred on the arrival in Oslo of a new drug, “violin”, several times stronger and more addictive than heroin but without the respiration-restricting side effects. “It’s based on an actual drug,” Nesbø says, “but it’s not a street drug right now — I think it’s probably too expensive to produce.”
The police, he says, were “extremely helpful” with the research, though he can’t say more because it’s “kind of sensitive”. But there were also his Di Derre days to revisit. “Obviously bands are traditionally close to drugs,” he says. “I have friends who are heroin addicts, so I didn’t have to go too far.”
Even his footballing background gets a nod; the violin dealers in Phantom wear Arsenal shirts. “I have so many friends who are Arsenal fans who called me up and said that was cheap! But it was because they’re red and white and you can spot them easily.”
Fine, but we still have our suspicions that the grisly end met by the pusher in the Nicklas Bendtner top was no accident.
Phantom by Jo Nesbø (Harvill Secker) is out now
Illustration by Miles Cole