What is it about Scandinavian mysteries that makes them, on average, so much better than anyone else's? I'm not saying Americans can't write good thrillers: Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series would come near the top of any aficionado's list, as would Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books. But these deeply psychological, highly individualistic portraits of twisted motivation represent only a small sliver of what the genre can do. In the right hands, the mystery novel becomes not only a thrilling cat-and-mouse game between a fiendishly clever murderer and a doggedly persistent detective, but also a commentary on the wider society that spawns, polices, and punishes murder. It is this wider view—the social view—at which the Scandinavians excel.
Perhaps we can attribute this in part to the small size of these far northern countries, their relatively homogenous populations, their stable cultural traditions—a setting, in short, in which murders (and especially serial murders) stand out starkly and beg for analysis. Or maybe this wider focus is connected to the firmly if mildly socialist perspective of even the most conservative Scandinavian governments, a view in which individual behavior contributes to or detracts from the public welfare. Possibly the dark, cold, long winters also have a role: With those extreme alternations between everlasting night and midnight sun, the Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians may be more likely than the rest of us to reflect on the role of environment in shaping character. The citizens of these countries also seem unusually alert to their own national pasts (unlike Americans, say, for whom the mid-twentieth-century is already History), and this in turn makes them more likely to seek cause and effect in these collective historical influences. In any event, what all these factors add up to is a worldview that places the criminal at the center of a social web. This is not necessarily what makes Scandinavian mysteries addictive—thatcan probably be attributed to the typical thriller qualities of suspense and surprise—but it is what makes them remarkably satisfying.
Jo Nesbø's excellent books are the latest addition to this Nordic roster, which begins with the grandparents of all Scandinavian mysteries—the marvelous 10-volume Martin Beck series written by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall in the 1960s and 1970s—and descends through the estimable Henning Mankell, with his endearing Kurt Wallander figure, to the somewhat debased but still enjoyable level of Stieg Larsson. Nesbø differs from all these Swedes in that he is a Norwegian, so he's playing his games (particularly his historical games) with a slightly different set of pieces. His moves, like those of his best predecessors, are subtle and complicated. His countermoves are even more so; and in order to keep up with the patterns of play, you really need to be able to keep the whole board in your mind at all times.
This, in fact, may be why Nesbø has thus far failed to capture the huge American audience that has glommed onto Stieg Larsson's series. Nesbø asks you to know things about the world: about Norway's involvement in the Second World War, about the nature of rural-urban migration in Scandinavia, about Eastern European gun-running, about the hierarchy of the Salvation Army, about DNA tracing, drug side-effects, and other medical technicalities, about …well, the list goes on and on.
You don't have to know these things before you start reading Nesbø's books. You can learn them from the novels themselves, if you are alert enough. The amount you are asked to absorb in any one volume, between the alternating strands of plot, the different perspectives of the various characters, and the welter of social, physical, and psychological information, is huge. Yet the absorption of all this stuff is so rapid, so intense, and—yes—so irresistibly addictive that, for those of us who have submitted ourselves fully to the process, it feels as if we are mainlining Nesbø, taking him in through our blood and our brains simultaneously. This is reading as you experienced it in childhood, without any gap between eye and mind, but with the added pleasures that adult plots and adult characters can bring.
Nesbø's detective, who occupies center-stage throughout the series, is an Oslo-based police officer named Harry Hole. Like all appealing detective figures, Harry has many flaws. He's an alcoholic with a tendency to surliness and even violence. He has trouble maintaining romantic relationships with women, though his closest friends and best partners tend to be female. He depends on the cooperation of others in the police force, but he is not a team player, and being his friend or colleague or even lover can be a dangerous proposition. He's smart, and he has taste (references to excellent old movies and good pieces of music pop up in his reveries at key moments), but more than anything else he relies on a powerful internal engine he can't control: his own intuition.