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Scenes from Norway and Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman

May 11, 2012

As the popularity of Scandinavian noir continues to rise, I have recently started reading the work of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo. Nesbo has become one of the biggest stars of crime writing of our time with his series detective Harry Hole rivalling Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who novels in popularity. Nesbo’s writing style has an almost gleeful disregard for realism. Even so, in novels such as The Snowman (2007), the reader gains a fascinating insight into Norwegian culture. Hole is a maverick detective who has become an expert on serial killers after training with the FBI. Like previous novels in the Hole series, Nesbo uses a straightforward crime story to examine the repercussions of a sudden outbreak of violence in a country renowned for being peaceful and prosperous, a theme which is particularly moving and topical in light of the 2011 attacks in Oslo and Utoya island in which 77 people were killed in what amounted to Norway’s most violent day since the Second World War. In the novel a series of women are abducted and murdered and a snowman is always found at the crime scene. Hole becomes convinced he is dealing with Norway’s first serial killer case, despite the scepticism of some of his colleagues:

‘And we still haven’t seen a serial killer in Norway.’ Skarre glanced at Bratt as if to make sure she was following. ‘Is it because of that FBI course you did on serial killers? Is that what’s making you see them everywhere?’

‘Maybe,’ Harry said.

‘Let me remind you that apart from that nurse feller who gave injections to a couple of old fogeys, who were at death’s door anyway, we haven’t had a single serial killer in Norway. Ever. Those guys exist in the USA, but even there usually only in films.’

‘Wrong,’ said Katrine Bratt.

The others turned to face her. She stifled a yawn.

‘Sweden, France, Belgium, Britain, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Russia and Finland. And we’re only talking solved cases here. No one utters a word about hidden statistics.’

The Snowman succeeds not by avoiding the clichés of crime fiction, but by embracing them. Hole is such a maverick that practically none of his investigative techniques would lead to admissible evidence; he breaks into a suspect’s office, then her house. He drives his car through a huge glass door during a chase scene. In one gloriously comic scene, Hole’s superiors march into his office with the intention of firing him and find Hole seemingly injecting drugs. The perfectly composed Hole informs them that he is injecting water, not drugs, as part of an experiment in which he proves that one character’s supposed suicide by drug overdose was in fact murder. As the narrative progresses, the clichés become more pronounced as Nesbo unleashes an anarchic style upon the story’s thrilling but preposterous climax.

Anders Breivik in Court

Anders Breivik in Court

Part of the appeal of ‘Scandi-Noir’ in the UK and US is it gives the reader a glimpse of the dark underworld of societies which we have somewhat naively regarded as almost utopian. However, reading the coverage of the Anders Breivik trial, I cannot help but feel that Norway is still years ahead of us on some social issues. Despite committing mass murder, Breivik can by Norwegian law serve no more than 21 years in prison (unless he is declared insane), and the prison where he will serve his sentence will not be some fearful penitentiary but an institution in which prisoners are treated humanely with a focus on rehabilitation. Granted the Norwegian system was not designed for killers like Breivik, but to make it more repressive runs the risk of playing in to Breivik’s own demented views. By contrast, here in the UK people are now being given prison sentences for saying stupid and offensive things on twitter. A needlessly harsh reaction to a minor problem. Nesbo has said his country’s reaction to the Breivik case has made him proud to be Norwegian. You can read some of Nesbo’s views on the Breivik case, and how it will influence crime writing, here.

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