Sweden’s Stieg Larsson helped create a new genre: crime novels with a conscience. But if you prefer them lighter and non-PC, hop across the borderby Andrew Anthony / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
The Leopard by Jo Nesbo, (Harvill Secker, £12.99)
Not long ago, if you wanted to read about serial killers, social corruption and moral despair the only place to turn to was American crime fiction. Thanks to Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (creator of Kurt Wallander), over the last decade the action has decisively shifted to Sweden. Instead of New York, Los Angeles and Florida, nowadays the settings for a crime novel’s murderous sprees are more likely to be Stockholm, Gothenburg and the province of Skåne.
If Sweden, that model of a fair society, could make itself a plausible home for multiple homicides and venal conspiracies, then why not its neighbour, Norway, whose murder rate is even lower? Enter a Norwegian writer, the 50-year-old Jo Nesbo, whose commercial bona fides—“Over 5m books sold worldwide”—are displayed on the front of his latest novel, The Leopard.
There has been much discussion about why crime fiction has proven so attractive to Swedish writers. It’s been argued that, in the wake of the Social Democratic party leader Olof Palme’s assassination in 1986 and the demise of the social democratic utopia, the genre provided a convenient refuge for disillusioned left-wing intellectuals. Rather less attention, though, has been paid to why the Swedish take on crime has such an appeal to readers.
Broadening the question to encompass Scandinavia as a whole, one answer might be landscape and weather. Society may have been largely tamed in the northern extremes of Europe, but nature remains compellingly stark and unyielding. And the most obvious signifier of not just wilderness, but of innocence awaiting despoiling, is snow, of which there’s no shortage.
Nesbo’s previous blood-in-the-snow novel was entitled The Snowman (2007), an icy tale about the sort of homicidal maniac that in reality is a total stranger to Norway. As with that book and the six other efforts that preceded it, the hero of The Leopard is Harry Hole (pronounced Holy), an alcoholic detective who can outsmoke Sam Spade and outsmart Sherlock Holmes. In common with Holmes, he also has a taste for opium. When we meet him at the beginning of The Leopard, he’s strung out in Hong Kong, hiding from debtors and the nightmare memories of tracking down the previous novel’s serial killer, the Snowman.
Nesbo, who is also the lead vocalist in the Norwegian rock band Di Derre, comes from the modern Scandinavian school of flat-packed prose and…