Nesbø’s earnest but seriously flawed homicide detective, Harry Hole (pronounced HEU-leh in Norwegian) is back for a ninth mystery, Phantom, coming from Knopf.
Hole had fled to Hong Kong, traumatized emotionally and physically, mourning the end of his relationship with his girlfriend Rakel, and Oleg, the son he helped raise. But now Hole is back in Oslo to deal with Oleg’s arrest for murder. Oleg is an addict and the victim was an addict, the case involving a sinister new drug, a synthetic opium, flooding Oslo. Hole, barred from his old job on the police force, is on his own in an increasingly dangerous investigation.
Nesbø didn’t write the Hole series until he was well into a few other serious professions. He started out with soccer, but was sidelined by an injury. Plan B was business and economics, and in the early ’90s he was working as a stockbroker, but it’s not easy to keep a creative spirit down, and by night he was playing in a rock band. “We started playing in a very local club that had never had live music before,” Nesbø says. “We played for free, or rather for free beer. We changed the band’s name every week because we were so bad, we figured no one would show up if they knew we were playing. When someone would ask ‘who’s playing?’ the answer was ‘those guys,’ so we became Di Derre, which in Norwegian means ‘those guys.’ ”
Di Derre began touring, Nesbø wrote song lyrics, they got a record deal, and pretty soon, he says, “I’d be at the stock exchange for the morning bell and at the end of the day grab a cab to the airport to meet the band wherever they were playing. After the gig, my bandmates were going off with beautiful women and I was back at the airport to catch a plane and the next morning’s bell. We played 180 gigs in one year.” In 1996, Nesbø decided he needed a break. This time, when he went to the airport it was for a flight to Australia. In the 30 hours it took to get to Sydney from Oslo, the saga of Harry Hole began.
Nesbø says he always saw himself as a writer: “I wrote song lyrics. I had always written short stories. My mother was a librarian. My house was bookish.” He was approached by an agent in Norway to write a book about the band, but he wasn’t interested. In high school, Nesbø reveals, his posse wore long black coats and discussed Dostoyevski and Hunter Thompson. “We all wanted to be serious writers at 19, but nothing ever came of it. I started writing crime fiction because I wanted to keep it simple.”
Nesbø’s first book, The Bat (1997), won prizes, but was not a commercial success. It was the third book, The Red Breast, that broke through and was the first to be translated into English (HarperCollins, 2007). Book one was set in Australia, book two in Bangkok, and book three in Oslo. “If I was going to be a Scandinavian writer, the prevailing notion was that the book should be set in Norway.” But the name of his character, Hole, Nesbø explains, as it’s pronounced in Norwegian, has the feel of popular culture, a feeling of America. Nesbø talks about Norway’s close association with the United States: “20% of the country immigrated to America,” he says. In fact, Nesbø’s father grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, although the family eventually moved back to Norway.
The character of Hole is based on a police officer in Nesbø’s grandmother’s town. “When I would stay with her, she would threaten me with the local policeman to get me to come home on time. ‘Holy will come to get you,’ she’d say.” Years later, in that same village, a very old man came up to Nesbø and held out a hand. “I am Holy,” he said. Nesbø says his first thought was “but it’s not 8 o’clock yet!”
Nesbø’s detective, Hole, is a world weary everyman and the series is appropriately violent, taking on the underworld and the establishment. And Hole has aged with his books. He’s now in his late 40s, he’s single, a womanizer and a drinker who tries not to drink, often unsuccessfully. Nesbø talks about the books and his writing as though the whole story is someone else’s, so quiet is his ego. He’s on his way to L.A. to talk “deals”; he’ll be touring in November and December.
Is another Hole novel in the works? Nesbø will only say, “Read this one and see what you think.”