A Dickens in a dark Disneyland

Celebrated in his Norwegian homeland, Jo Nesbo became a global sensation with 'The Snowman'. He talked to Christian House

Oslo in the snow is a white-jacketed gentleman, comfortable in its wintry clothes.

Yet the city's kicked-back, outdoorsy conservatism is the setting for a crime fiction series by Jo Nesbo that is set to overshadow those of the finest of Nordic sleuths.

I meet Nesbo at Bolgen & Moi, an upmarket restaurant in the Briskeby district. Housed in the city's old power station, it is a particularly Scandinavian-styled bunker of clean lines and natural materials. Wood fires waft a snug scent and understated customers dine on fish from the fjord. We sit at his favourite table and order wine and coffee. At 50, Nesbo is wolfish with hooded eyes and the toned masculinity of a man who embraces discipline.

While the author has long enjoyed celebrity status at home, last year's publication of The Snowman, the seventh Inspector Harry Hole novel, propelled him onto the international stage. Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent, has described Nesbo as the "next Stieg Larsson". But the author dismisses such comparisons as "corny", saying his intention is more in tune with storytellers such as Mark Twain and Dickens. "Great expectations," he states. "But then you have to live up to them."

Over-achievement has been the defining force in Nesbo's various guises: teenage football protégé, economist, pop star, crime writer and bestselling children's author. However, it is his investigations by the weary Inspector Hole that have made him a global sensation, with sales topping five million. While The Snowman was a cunning sleight of hand that pitted Hole against a serial killer who stalks wayward mothers with an electric noose, its sequel, The Leopard, published on Thursday, finds the detective pulled back from the brink of self-destruction in Hong Kong's drug dens in order to track a new nemesis back in Oslo.

The city is as vivid a presence as Hole and his adversaries. "I think it is a character," he says. "I created an Oslo which was in part the real Oslo, in part my own. I made it a little bit darker; a little bit bigger; a bit more scary – but not much."

Is it really a menacing city? "It is a bit like the Disneyland of the dark," says Nesbo. "By day, it's a happy and vibrant but still innocent village. The music scene is great, the art scene is great. But by night, if you know what places to go, or what places not to go but you go there anyway, you will see a totally different Oslo. We could take a drive now to the centre of the city and I can show you where to get a whore or drugs."

Often cited as the richest in the world, the city has had a major drug problem since the 1970s. "Twenty years ago, the international funds came to Oslo; [the drugs trade] has had a good time here and the police haven't adapted to the situation."

The correct pronunciation of his detective proves something of a sticking point. "Hooluur," he says. Well, I think he does. I repeat. "No!" After a few tries I give up. So, does being the singer in Norway's celebrated band Di Derre allow him a privileged angle on language? "I thought so, until I went to Poland," he laughs. "I was in your situation. In my ears, I pronounce perfectly. They just shook their heads." The Norwegian tongue is tied in many ways: a gurgle of inhalation, elongated vowels and words that end in sudden cliff-jumps. It makes the Hole books entertaining to read as a cultural as well as criminal exploration. His own surname ends with an "o", but one which, he explains, has the same sound with which Inspector Clouseau enunciates "bomb".

Hole is a likeable, unlikeable character who both conforms with the tradition of tortured detectives such as Wallander, Morse and Rebus, and confounds it. Nesbo embraces the form, squeezing it to within an inch of its life. "It's the reason why I want to write crime and that is, of course, I love these clichés. If you take, for example, Frank Miller and what he is doing in Sin City: he's taking all the clichés two steps further," says Nesbo. "It may be dangerous; the result may look like a parody of a crime story, but if your heart is in the story and if the reader is with you on that ride, it's important to do."

Hole's alcoholism, for instance, is not the usual hard-drinking barfly bonhomie. He turns his back on the booze for long swathes of plot, only for it to reconnect like a bottle to the back of the neck. "How about making alcohol this guy's kryptonite, his Achilles' heel? It is all his anxiety, all the bad things that have happened to him," says Nesbo. "How about let's have one thing that represents all those things and let that be Jim Beam."

After leaving the restaurant, Nesbo is due to go on the beat with the city's narcotics police. Researching psychopathic murderers, however, is a little less easy. "There's not a long tradition of serial killers in Norway. Unfortunately," he says, with a smile. "Then again, most of them probably got away with it, so we never knew they were there."

Making readers not notice what is right in front of them is Nesbo's stock in trade. From the land of pickled fish comes a purveyor of the finest red herrings. "You get these vital parts in the book where you have to do that thing: I'm giving you the answer; the answer's there," he waves his left hand out wide towards the steaming kitchens. "But I'm doing bigger things with my right hand." I suggest that he is playing a conjuring trick with the reader akin to the games played by the killer with Hole. "Oh I am. I definitely am," he agrees. "What you have to do is find the balance with being fair." It's yet another example of Nesbo's ability to switch gears and change façades, a little like Oslo's streets, when the pristine snow thaws to reveal the mean streets beneath.

The Leopard, By Jo Nesbo (trs Don Bartlett) Harvill Secker £12.99

"Harry realised he was wide awake now and found himself perching on the edge of the chair. He felt the stirrings, the excitement. And the nausea. Like when he took his first drink, the one that made his stomach turn, the one his body desperately rejected. And soon he would be begging for more. More and more. Until it destroyed him and everyone around him."

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