It's not justabout plot, Norwegian rock star turned chart-topping crime writer Jo Nesbo tells David Robinson
WHEN I finally get in touch with Jo Nesbo, he's just back from climbing a limestone cliff in southern Thailand. He goes there every year for two or three months to meet old friends, climb, get away from winter in his native Norway and - these days - the pressure of being one of the world's best-selling crime writers.
It matters, he says, that the rock is limestone, because it erodes easily in the tropical seas, to the point that island stacks of rock are almost like inverted pyramids. So there's no shortage of overhangs and technical challenges, yet the rockface also usually offers enough feasible holds to enable climbers to inch their way upwards under the near-equatorial sun. For a serious rock climber, it's paradise.
"The great thing about the climbing," he says, "is that it takes you completely away from the writing. You can't concentrate on anything else while you're doing it." Yet the climbing only takes up half of his time in southern Thailand; for the rest of it he'll be back in his rented bungalow planning the next novel starring the self-destructive Oslo detective Harry Hole. Nesbo is particularly thorough in his plotting: often he won't write a word of the novel until he's spent a whole year working out how to get Harry up the cliff-face of plausibility with the maximum amount of adrenalin rushes en route.
His sales figures have been climbing spectacularly too. It helps that, in his native country, he's been a chart-topping rock star (who still plays over 60 gigs a year) since the early Nineties. (Aha, I say. "Yes, we were nearly as big as them.") So, too, does the current boom in Scandinavian crime fiction based around Stieg Larsson's trilogy. But while Larsson never lived to see his books published, Nesbo is very much around to help promote his books' march up the European bestseller charts.
The novel he is talking about at Glasgow's Aye Write! festival today is The Leopard. It's the sixth in the Harry Hole series to be translated into English, and at a stonking 624 pages is by far his longest, and when it topped Britain's hardback bestseller charts last month he became only the second author in the last decade to do so with a translated novel (the other one was Larsson).
The breakthrough in Britain came last year with Nesbo's previous Harry Hole novel, The Snowman, which was compared favourably by many critics to The Silence of the Lambs. That book ended with Hole, having overcome a serial killer who threatened his nearest and dearest, trying to lose himself in the opium dens of Hong Kong. In The Leopard he is lured back to Norway to track down another killer whose modus operandi involves placing a torture device known as a Leopold's Apple in his victim's mouths - a spherical device containing 24 sharp spikes which shoot outward when activated.
So when mobile phone reception improves for a few minutes in Nesbo's secret hideaway in southern Thailand (Secret? Well, would you want tourists to overrun your climbing paradise?) I've got my first question ready: Please tell me that there's no such thing as a Leopold's Apple.
While he points out that he did in fact do a lot of research for the book in the Congo, where it is partly set and where the Leopold's apple is supposed to have originated, he conceded that, there is, in fact, no such device. "Or at least none that I've heard of." My sigh of relief goes halfway round the planet.
"But I think how I got that idea goes right back to my childhood. I was at my grandmother's in the summer holidays and me and my brother were out playing in the garden. My gran had told us that we couldn't pick any of the apples but she hadn't said anything about not eating them, so we thought we'd eat the apples in her trees without picking them - we thought it would be funny if there was a tree of half-eaten apples.
"Anyway, there was this one big apple and my brother challenged me to see if I could get it all in my mouth. And I could. But I couldn't get it out again. So I was lying on the branch with this big apple in my mouth and I started thinking - 'Right … Now the apple is still growing, so what will happen if I stay here for the summer and the apple keeps growing. Will my head explode?"
He was born in Oslo, but moved when he was eight to the town of Molde, about a third of the way up the Norwegian coast. His mother was a librarian, and his businessman father loved to tell stories to his two sons: Nesbo remembers asking him to read Lord of the Flies "not because of innate good taste but because there was a picture of a pig's blood-stained head impaled on a pole on the cover".
But if books mattered to the young Nesbo, football mattered more. At 17 he was playing for Molde - a Norwegian Premiership side - and dreamed of a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. He was, he concedes, "a selfish, lazy striker", never helping out in defence, but he was devastated all the same when the cruciate ligaments in his knees went, forcing him to abandon a football career.
And in an alternative universe where your knees had remained sturdy? There's not a millisecond's pause. "Then I'd have been Jurgen Klinsmann," he shoots back.
Because he knew he'd soon be a famous footballer, he had been a bit of a duffer at school and had the poor grades to prove it. Now he had to start all over again, studying hard while doing military service, and before long he was studying economics at Bergen university. He moved to Oslo, became a stockbroker, became bored, and started writing songs.
Cue pop stardom, massive success, money. Unlike all other pop stars you can think of, though, Nesbo kept on the day job. Financial analyst until 4pm, rock god by night. Something had to give.
In 1996, it all became too much, and he walked away from his two careers to get as far as he could away from Norway. On the plane to Australia, he started writing a novel about a man called Harry Hole. By the time he came back, he had almost finished it. A few more weeks passed and he posted it off to a publisher under a nom de plume.
At this point we reach the moment when any biopic would reach for the shots mixing the months falling off the calendar and spinning headlines announcing record sales, crime fiction prizes and rave reviews. There's no doubting Nesbo's massive, and ever-growing success. But what's the reason for it?
First off, I think we can discount Clive James's thesis that crime fiction like this is really just travel writing under a different name. There's an element of that, of course, but Nesbo is quite clear that plot always matters far more than local colour: He doesn't dwell too long, for example, on the details of Oslo social life. He could have described it more fully if he wanted to, as a lot of Hole's fictional life is drawn directly from his creator's.
"When I started writing the series," Nesbo admits, "I was more or less living in Harry's apartment. We went to the same bars, met friends at the same places." Yet those places are only briefly sketched in, so the notion of a Harry Hole tour of Oslo along the lines of the Wallander tour in the Swedish town of Ystad would, he thinks, "be a bit silly".
Plot also matters far more than the crime novel's undoubted ability to examine contemporary social issues in greater depth than the literary novel often manages.
"I'm just an entertainer," says Nesbo. "In a way crime stories are boring. A crime's been committed and at the end you know it will be solved. So you've got to make the story interesting besides it just being a plot. And that's why character matters, why you've got to make the characters interesting.
"And that's partly why I spend the whole year plotting the novel. It's not just the plot that I'm working on but the character too. So when it finally comes to me actually writing chapter one, I like to have that feeling that I'm not just coming up with the story but retelling a story that's already there. So then I can feel confident, I can say, come, sit closer, listen to this great story ..."
So here's Harry Hole ready to start another adventure, drugged-out in an opium den, unwilling to go back to Oslo and search for yet another serial killer, his moral compass as ever swinging around all over the place. And here's the plot, already marked out like bolts in a cliff on a climb that sometimes is going to leave its credibility hanging on by its fingertips, but that will also have so many switches and misdirections, double-dealings, internal rivalries, that you won't know what to believe. There'll be a certain amount of ingenious deduction and clever sleight of hand too.
It's going to be quite a climb. Start in the mind of a Norwegian boy who swallowed an apple and became a pop star and see where you end up.
• The Leopard, by Jo Nesbo, is published by Harvill Secker, priced 12.99. Nesbo will be appearing at the Aye Write! book festival in Glasgow's Mitchell Library at 7pm today.