Americans discover Jo Nesbø

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Fourteen years after he published the first of his wildly successful crime novels in Norway, Jo Nesbø suddenly seems all the rage in the US. It makes one wonder what took the Americans so long to dig into Nesbø’s books and get scared along with the rest of his millions of fans.

Jo Nesbø has been popular in Norway and scores of other countries for years. Now the US is discovering him as well. PHOTO: Arvid Stridh

It’s not as if Nesbø is a newcomer in the world of crime literature. He already has eight crime novels on the market which have been translated into some 40 languages. His ninth novel featuring the hard-boiled fictional detective Harry Hole is due out in Norway next month.

Nesbø’s books have already sold more than 1.5 million copies in Norway alone (a country of less than 5 million people), and Nesbø also has fans all over the world. On a recent Scandinavian talk show, Nesbø said he’s still startled when fans approach him in Thailand, for example, or in Italy. The market for his work there is so strong that Nesbø has his own Italian web site.

And Nesbø is much more than just a crime novelist. He’s also published children’s books and four other books including a documentary from the Balkans. To make his diversification complete, he’s a former stockbroker with a degree from Norway’s leading business school, and he’s a singer/songwriter who enjoyed huge success with his band Di Derre. One of their big hits from the 1990s with its catchy refrain of “Jenter som kommer og jenter som går” (Girls who come and go) still plays regularly on Norwegian radio.

His financial success clearly comes from the Harry Hole crime novels, though, and now it looks like his market will greatly expand. The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal have all written flattering stories about Nesbø recently, as Random House Inc in the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group geared up to launch The Snowman in English this week. It came out in Norway a few years ago and is Nesbø’s fourth crime novel published in the US. Three others — The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Devil’s Star, his third, fourth and fifth books featuring detective Harry Hole — were published by HarperCollins.

Nesbø’s first two Harry Hole novels — The Bat Man and The Cockroaches — aren’t available in the US but Nesbø’s website reports that Random House/Knopf has plans to publish The Redeemer next year (it came out just before The Snowman) and The Leopard (the 8th Harry Hole novel that came just after The Snowman) in 2013.

Media in both Norway and the US suggest Random House/Knopf is riding the wave of Scandinavian crime novel popularity, following its astonishing success in the US with the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium triology of books featuring Lisbeth Salander. Nesbø (written as “Nesbo” in US media) has made it clear he doesn’t want to be “the next Stieg Larsson,” but he does enjoy his success.

He calls The Snowman “probably one of my best novels,” containing “raw and personal” descriptions of fear. He wrote it after he’d had considerable financial success with earlier novels, so felt he had more time and license to The Snowman’s style and precision. He says it’s “certainly my most scary story,” with “more horror than any of my other books,” even though there’s little actual blood in it.

Asked why Scandinavian crime novels are attracting American readers, author Nathaniel Rich told Oslo newspaper Aftenposten that many Americans are curious about the Scandinavian brand of social democracy. “They think (Scandinavians) are pretty and handsome and find it exciting that crime exists in such well-ordered, peaceful societies,” Rich told Aftenposten.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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  • Roberto

    In Croatia where I live we can read “The Redbreast” and “Nemesis”
    Great books. Wait for sequels. Nesbo and Apoptygma Berzerk….super.

  • KT Iversen

    I suspect that it is more likely that North Americans will find this man’s writing appealing because his perspective is somewhat different than ours. What I mean is that North Americans have had so much exposure to our own cultural perspectives that we have simply grown inured to them. Anyone not from North America has got to have a different way of analyzing and explaining any subject, especially when it comes to the subject of crime. North America is nothing but one big bowl of crime soup if you get my meaning. If you do not, simply turn on your TV set! I’ve seen and read it all before, so I think I will give one of Mr. Nesbo’s books a read. Maybe I will actually be entertained. As for Scandinavians all being pretty or peaceful: I guess that’s open for debate. Vikings liked to kill people didn’t they?

  • michelle

    I know I found out about him when his books were featured in The Costco magazine. I went and got the first one at Costco and am hooked. I went and picked up the other 2 that were available and as I was there the separates and all 3 were selling out fast. Glad I got mine when I did.

  • Rob

    Michelle you can get all his books in English from, for some reason doesn’t have them all.

    • Ketil

      As a Norwegian I have been fortunate to read most of the books in the correct sequence. Even though all the books can be read separately, there is a certain progress in the development of the main character. So if you do have the oppprtunity, read them in the correct order. The first novel I read was Redbreast, which I personally find the best due to its historical backdrop.