Ex-Stockbroker Jo Nesbo Probes Murder, Mystery as Author

Jo Nesbo
Jo Nesbo, author of "Phantom." Source: Knopf via Bloomberg

Jo Nesbo worked days as a stockbroker and nights and weekends singing in one of Norway’s top rock ’n’ roll bands, Di Derre, before writing the first of nine best-selling novels featuring iconoclastic Oslo detective Harry Hole.

He’s also a rock climber who has mountain-biked with the Norwegian prime minister.

His latest book, “Phantom,” takes Harry back to Oslo from Hong Kong -- and this time, the mission is personal.

Nesbo, 52, spoke by telephone from Los Angeles while on a book tour around the U.S.

McCabe: You worked in the finance industry, including a stint at DNB Markets, part of the largest bank in Norway. How long were you in the industry?

Nesbo: I was there for nine years.

McCabe: Could you imagine staying?

Nesbo: I was probably one of the worst sales persons at the brokerage firm. I hated chit-chatting and small talk. I had a few big clients who were the same. They didn’t want the small talk.

I was totally overpaid. But I have to admit that I’d probably never felt the right passion for the job. The stock market to me was like a video game. When it went off, it was like turning the game off. It wasn’t something I’d think about until I’d turn the machine on again.

‘The Bat’

McCabe: How did your first Harry Hole novel, “The Bat,” come about?

Nesbo: There was a girl that I had studied with who worked for a publishing company. She contacted me and asked if I could write a book. What they wanted was a book about the band. They had this idea that I could write because I wrote the lyrics. And ever since I was in my teens I had plans at one point in my life to write a novel.

My plan for the future at that time was to be a struggling writer for 10 years. But what happened was that three weeks later, they called and said they wanted to publish “The Bat.”

McCabe: I finished “Phantom” recently. You leave Harry in a rather precarious position at the end. Is he going to make another appearance?

Nesbo: When I wrote this, I was planning a second book. It is sort of a sequel, because this one ends in sort of a cliffhanger.

Harry feels like he’s coming back to Oslo for one last mission. He was always driven as a police officer, as a detective, but this time it’s something else completely. It’s more character-driven, in a way, than any of the other books.

Illegal Drugs

McCabe: Harry battles alcohol. He’s got a fondness for tobacco. He has frequent interactions with drug users and dealers. How much of your personal experience is reflected in what you write?

Nesbo: Heavy drugs are illegal in Norway, so I can’t tell you all the details of the research I’ve done. But I do draw on personal experience. I take my research very seriously. Meaning that I’m not living Harry’s life. But to some extent I have to go down the roads that he does.

McCabe: “The Redbreast” tells of Norwegian men who served with the German army during World War II. Your father, whose family had returned to Norway from the U.S., was one of them. How does that background color your writing? After all, your mother sided with the Norwegian resistance, so they were on different sides.

Hitler, Stalin

Nesbo: For many people, it looked like you had the choice between two strong persons, Hitler or Stalin. Old democracies like England and France were more or less broke at the time.

And the United States -- which was of course up and running, and a success -- that was on the other side of the globe. In 1940, that was really far, far away and had nothing to do with Europe.

My father, coming from the United States with my grandparents -- they were anti-Communist, so he made his choice. He said, “OK, if we are going to fight Stalin, I have to go with the Germans. So I have to side with the Germans and fight the Communists.”

McCabe: Rock ’n’ roll makes an appearance across all your books. The Violent Femmes. Jason & the Scorchers. For me, the late 1980s was a golden age of rock. Was it the same for you?

Nesbo: Yeah, there were a couple of rock journalists in Oslo who introduced not only me but my friends to the American rock wave at that time with the bands you mention. And Green on Red, Rank and File, R.E.M., Dream Syndicate, the Rainmakers, who I actually saw playing at a small club in Oslo just weeks ago.

Son of Sam

McCabe: You seem to have mixed feelings about psychiatry. I’m curious because my own Norwegian grandfather was the court-appointed psychiatrist during the trial of Son of Sam, the serial killer.

He was the only psychiatrist to declare this man David Berkowitz sane, and so he was sent to prison instead of a mental hospital. My grandfather actually got letters from him in jail, thanking him for showing him his demons were real ...

Nesbo: ... For sending him to jail instead of the madhouse! This is at the core of my writing.

What do we mean by “crazy”? What do we mean by “mad”? At what point is a person just different and at what point can we call it a disease and say that they are not responsible for their actions? Or are we all slaves to the chemical processes that go on in our brains?

And in that way whether a person is “insane” or not doesn’t really matter.

“Phantom” is published by Knopf in the U.S. and Harvill Secker in the U.K. (400 pages, $25.95, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Alec D.B. McCabe is an editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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