In questioning what it is about Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole that has attracted such an avid following, I wrote a short list of traits that I felt were key
to Harry’s character, beginning with his alcoholism , his ‘inner demon.’
In each of the novels I’ve read so far, Harry at some point or another succumbs to his demon. It’s never just a faltering misstep; he tumbles head first into a hellish other-world that gives him little relief from the torment that leads him to take that first drink.
In re-reading the ‘drunk scenes’ in The Bat, The Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Devil’s Star, looking for insight, I became more than a little curious about Nesbo’s reasons for giving Harry such an extreme affliction. Fortunately, since his Harry Hole series has risen to ‘best-seller-dom’ in numerous countries, writer Jo Nesbo has been interviewed extensively, and some particularly revealing interviews gave me answers.
Jason Steger of The Sydney Morning Herald (February 18, 2012) asked Nesbo about Harry’s alcoholism, and Nesbo revealed that when he began to write about his protagonist:
He wasn’t sure about his approach to crime writing; whether he wanted to shy away from the stereotypes of the genre or embrace them. He chose the latter, believing that ”instead of feeling restrained by the genre, you have to accept it and use the cliches and use the possibilities that lie within them”.
If all writing is about communicating, he says, it is more efficient if there are certain rules that are known by you and the reader. ”There will be expectations; you can use those expectations and you can play with the expectations. This is what most crime writers do in a novel. They will be very conscious about the rules and then stretch them and bend them. But you stay within them because you don’t want to break the contract.”
In another interview by Charles Taylor (Barnes & Noble – November 29, 2012)
Taylor calls Harry’s relationship with alcohol ‘unique.’ adding ‘We’ve had series detectives with drinking problems before, but at some point they seem to lick it…
In reply, Nesbo talks about storytelling being ‘all about conflict… every scene, conflict…’ Harry’s struggles with the world and with the killer. Besides ‘the obvious conflict in any crime novel, you also have to have a conflict on the inner level. And to me Harry’s fight with alcoholism is sort of a symbol of Harry’s fight with the world and with himself, with his other self. Because you know, the story, the way I see it, is always about the main character’s internal self, whether it’s going to heaven or hell. Harry’s fight with alcohol has to do also with a moral choice. Alcohol is just a symbol. To me, alcohol is Harry’s Kryptonite.
Later in the same interview, the discussion comes around to how we have seen crime fiction being used to address other things like social and moral questions, which reminded me of my interest in the Greek writer Petros Markaris and his stated intention to use his Inspector Costas Haritos series “to explore social and political realities while keeping within the genre of the crime novel.”
Again in the interview, Taylor suggests that Nesbo is talking ‘about redemption and the soul of the character…’ and asks if ‘crime fiction is the way that literature now deals with social and moral questions? And is it necessary for literature to have a moral component or… a spiritual component?’
Nesbo replies that he’d come to the realization that ‘crime writers have a mandate to address society’, that they’d ‘taken over the role that long ago religious writers, and later mainstream ‘literary writers’ once assumed. He muses on how odd it seems that a genre that once was ‘purely entertainment has become interested in moral questions, while ‘ the rest of literature’ tends more to describe society without necessarily having a strong viewpoint.’
Don’t mean to get all professorial on you—but I have to admit I find this type of discussion fascinating.
In any case, I discovered that Harry Hole’s alcoholism is a common topic in Jo Nesbo interviews and crime fiction blogs. One I particularly enjoyed is Addicted to Addicted Detectives by LANCE CHARNES at Ciminal Element blog. A good read!
Getting to the other items on my little list of Harry’s rather negative (but oddly appealing) traits seems so anticlimactic after looking into his alcohol problem, mainly because I recognize that it’s really down to Nesbo’s craftsmanship that Harry Hole is such a fascinating character.
So let’s scrap the list… ‘cept for thing: Tantrums… Harry does tantrums.
The following excerpt from Chapter 6 of The Redbreast is one example that made me laugh… how clever of Nesbo to show us the contents of Harry’s waste basket!
Police HQ, Gronland. 9 October 1999.
Ellen Gjelten looked up at the man who burst through the door.
‘Good morning, Harry.’
Harry kicked the waste-paper basket beside his desk and it smashed into the wall next to Ellen’s chair and rolled across the linoleum floor, spreading its contents everywhere: discarded attempts at reports (the Ekeberg killing); an empty pack of twenty cigarettes (Camel, tax free sticker); a green Go’morn yoghurt pot; Dagsavisen; a used cinema ticket (Filmteateret. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas); a used pools coupon; a music magazine (MOJO, no. 69, February 1999, with a picture of Queen on the cover); a bottle of Coke (plastic, half-litre); and a yellow Post-it with a phone number he had considered ringing for a while.
Ellen looked up from her PC and studied the contents of the bin on the floor.
‘Are you chucking the MOJO out, Harry?’ she asked.
‘Fuck!’ Harry repeated. He wrestled off his tight suit jacket and threw it across the twenty metre square office he and Ellen Gjelten shared. The jacket hit the coat stand, but slid down to the floor.
‘What’s up?’ Ellen asked, reaching out a hand to stop the swaying coat stand from falling.
I doubt Harry will be on the agenda next post. I’m resisting buying Nesbo’s tenth installment in the Harry Hole series until I finish the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Finally reading them, thanks to Jo Nesbo being about the umpteenth mystery writer to referring to them as the most influential crime fiction writers ever.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö co-wrote the Martin Beck series between 1965 and 1975, but despite the lack of cell phones and computers, they’re still great detective fiction. I ‘absorbed’ the first book, Roseanne, over the weekend and can’t wait to get into The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.