Image featuring a selection of Jo Nesbo book covers

Image: Ryan MacEachern for Penguin

When he was a boy Jo Nesbø noticed that one of his fellow pupils often brought tweezers to school, for the sole purpose of pulling legs off flies. From that moment he became fascinated by what makes warped minds tick.

He began to wonder: “Do the bad guys see themselves as bad guys or good guys? If I went inside their heads, would I see things totally differently, like a photo negative?”. Getting inside the heads of bad guys – often very bad guys – has helped to make him one of the bestselling writers in the world.  

Born in Oslo in 1960, Nesbø was a celebrity in Norway before he ever put pen to paper, first as a striker for the top-flight football club Molde FK, then as the lead singer of the band Di Derre (“Those Guys”). But it is as a novelist that he has achieved global fame, selling more than 50 million copies of his books worldwide (aided in Anglophone countries by his excellent translators, Don Bartlett and Robert Ferguson). 

His best-loved creation is the morally ambiguous detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hoo-ler), who has appeared in a dozen novels – including The Snowman, made into a film starring Michael Fassbender in 2017. Harry is the Dark Knight in what Nesbø calls his “Gotham City” version of Oslo, a man repeatedly subjected to physical and mental anguish, who often seems as tortured and transgressive as the nightmarish sadistic killers he pursues. 

In addition to the Harry Hole books, Nesbø has experimented with many other styles and sub-genres of crime fiction. Here are some books that will serve as introductions to a varied body of work, unified by Nesbø’s mastery of macabre invention.

The Bat (1997)

In the mid-1990s Nesbø set off for a sabbatical in Australia after a publisher commissioned him to write a memoir about his life as a rocker. On the flight from Oslo, however, he came up with the idea for a thriller, and by the time he landed he had dreamed up an unlikely hero: a dysfunctional policeman called Harry Hole. 

Fascinating though his memoir would have been, I think we can all be grateful that he immediately abandoned it and set to work on his first novel, The Bat (1997). The book sees Harry dispatched to Sydney to join the hunt for a serial killer, although his “relaxed” approach to regulations rapidly has him marked down by the Aussie police as more hindrance than help. 

Brawling with men he shouldn’t, sleeping with women he definitely shouldn’t, drinking in quantities everybody shouldn’t, Harry is immediately established as the character readers will come to love over the course of eleven further books – a compelling combination of brilliant detective and walking disaster area. It’s the birth of a legend. 

Headhunters (2008)

After publishing seven hugely successful Harry Hole novels, in 2008 Nesbø gave bad-luck-magnet Harry a much-needed break, and produced a standalone thriller that remains a fan favourite.

It’s the tale of charming, amoral Roger Brown, whose well-remunerated job as a headhunter isn’t quite enough to keep his wife in the style to which she is accustomed, and so he develops an unusual side hustle: he becomes a prolific art thief. He makes a terrible misjudgment, however, when he embarks on a plan to steal a Reubens from one of his clients, Clas Greve – who happens to be an expert in surveillance technology. 

If you’re distressed by the amount of misfortune Nesbø regularly heaps on poor Harry Hole, you’ll be wanting to report him to the RSPCFC (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Fictional Characters) when you see what he has in store for Roger. As he goes on the run, becoming mouse to Greve’s cat, Roger gets into a series of humiliating and often wince-inducingly unpleasant scrapes. Both funny and thrilling, this splendid book was made into the highest-grossing Norwegian film ever. 

Blood on Snow (2015)

Nesbø specialises in crime fiction on the grand scale, long and bloody epics that leave readers feeling pleasantly battle-scarred. So Blood on Snow (2015) is a departure from the Nesbø norm, a short, deadpan tale set in the seedy Oslo underworld, in which violence is portrayed matter-of-factly as a routine occurrence. 

It centres on perhaps the most loveable character Nesbø has created – Olav Johansen, a sensitive petty criminal who couldn’t make it as a bank robber because he was worried about traumatising the staff, and failed as a pimp because the sex workers rang rings round him. He ends up working happily as a hitman for an underworld kingpin, killing off unpleasant gangsters – until he defies an order to dispatch his boss’s wife and is forced into hiding. 

Full of surreal humour and strangely touching, this is Nesbø experimenting with something different. I couldn’t get enough of the wonderful Olav, and was delighted to see him return in the sequel Midnight Sun

Macbeth (2018)

The darkest imagination in crime fiction and Shakespeare’s bloodiest play – it’s a match made in Heaven (or the other place). This 2018 novel began life as part of a series in which eminent authors reimagined Shakespeare’s works for a 21st-century audience. 

Nesbø chose to relocate Macbeth in an alternative-reality dystopian version of 1970s Scotland, and his central character is not a nobleman but a senior policeman with a drug problem. When Inspector Macbeth hears a prophecy telling him he will become Chief Commissioner – only in this case it’s via a trio of drug-addled sex workers rather than witches – he plots the murder of the current incumbent, his old mentor Duncan.  

Like Shakespeare’s play, Nesbø’s novel is a warning against excessive ambition – but, as with Shakespeare, the moral force of the story does not prevent Nesbø revelling in the violent consequences of Macbeth’s folly. Check out Nesbø’s take on the famous Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene to see how he matches the best of the Jacobean dramatists for bloodthirsty ingenuity.

The Kingdom (2020)

The remote Norwegian village of Os is a long way from Oslo, and not just literally: this sleepy rural place has a very different vibe from the frantic, teeming city Harry Hole lives in. Nevertheless, as this 2020 standalone thriller unfolds, it transpires that over the years Os has been home to more sociopaths, deviants, adulterers, swindlers and drunks than many large cities could muster. 

As narrator Roy Osgard, manager of the village petrol station, informs us, Os is in dire financial straits. But then Roy’s brother Carl returns after 15 years in North America, with a plan to save the village by building a communally funded luxury hotel in the mountains. Roy has good reason to be suspicious of Carl’s schemes - and other people have good reason to be suspicious of Roy.

It’s an uncharacteristically slow-burning book – to start with, at least – but Nesbø proves he can make a story riveting even without the non-stop action of the Harry Hole books. And as dark secrets spill by the truckload, there comes a high-octane crescendo as deliciously disturbing as anything else in the Nesbø oeuvre. 

The Jealousy Man and Other Stories (2021)

Nesbø’s latest book is his first ever collection of short stories, divided into two sections, “Jealousy” and “Power” – well, they were never likely to be “Kindness” and “Decency”, were they? The book is an anthology of man’s inhumanity to man, but written with such flair and wit that having your worst fears about humanity confirmed becomes a pleasure. 

We meet a master assassin who himself becomes the target of a hitman; a woman who seeks professional help in covering up her planned suicide so her husband won’t have the satisfaction of knowing he’s driven her to kill herself; and a taxi driver trying to uncover the truth about the relationship between his wife and his boss after he finds one of her earrings in a compromising place. 

Some of the stories are sketches of less than half a dozen pages; others are novella-length, including one long and vividly realised tale set in a dystopian post-pandemic America from which only the rich can afford to be evacuated. There are twist endings worthy of Roald Dahl, but the biggest twist of all is that kindness and decency do in fact make occasional appearances, and all the more movingly in the midst of Nesbø’s customary scepticism about humanity’s pretensions to civilisation.

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