The Bat, the first novel in the Harry Hole series of crime thrillers, initially published in Norway in 1997, is finally available in the U.S. The brilliant, quirky, alcoholic police inspector will no doubt be warmly received. After all, he already has a legion of American fans: Subsequent books in the series have previously been published here, albeit out of order. Book nine, Phantom, appeared last year, and book six, The Redeemer, just came out this May. As a friend of the author of the series, Jo Nesbø, told him, “That’s why your [American] publishing house is called Random House.” (Future books will be published in Norway and the U.S. at the same time.)
Although Harry Hole is from Oslo, our first encounter with him is actually in Australia, where he’s investigating the murder of a Norwegian children’s television star turned Sydney barmaid. Such a fish-out-of-water scenario can be a great way to meet a new character; we learn about him as he introduces himself to others.
Setting the book in Australia also allows Nesbø to instruct potential English readers how to pronounce the protagonist’s name correctly. Not Hole, but “Hoo-leh”—although the Sydney police end up calling him “Holy” as a compromise. Nesbø explains that Hole is actually “quite a common name” in Norway.
But none of that is why Nesbø set the novel in Sydney; it’s simply that he was on holiday there, which made research easy. “I thought it was a good idea to write what was around me,” Nesbø says. At the time, he was working both as the singer/guitarist in a band and as a stockbroker, and desperately needed a break from both. But even on vacation, Nesbø couldn’t remain idle; he “started to write on the plane from Oslo to Sydney.”
The Bat was “inspired by things that I saw and learned in Australia, about the aborigines, about the landscape,” Nesbø says. “I put in this character I knew, based on people I knew from childhood and myself and the typical hardboiled detective. Instead of trying to stay away from the typical detective, I would embrace the clichés, and just change it in a different place in a different time.” It took him just five weeks to complete The Bat, which went on to win the prestigious Glass Key award for Best Nordic Crime Novel.
Such rapid success might seem like a miracle, but Nesbø worked hard for his acclaim. Before embarking on the novel, he’d actually written a great deal of song lyrics and short stories. “So many of my friends had ambitions, they wanted to become writers,” Nesbø explains. “They put so much pressure on themselves, they wanted to write something extraordinary or not write at all…. They were more fascinated by the idea of being a writer than writing a book.” In contrast, Nesbø’s goal was to “tell a simple story and put it out there….What’s driven me is telling stories. That’s probably what made me write the book in five weeks.…It was such a great kick writing it, publishing it was secondary.”
Of course, the heart of this particular story is Harry Hole: an intelligent man, a tormented man, an alcoholic. I asked Nesbø if he thought all great cops and detectives needed to be damaged in some way. “That is also in the tradition of the hardboiled detective in the 1950s and the 1960s—Dashiell Hammett and Chandler and Jim Thompson,” Nesbø responds. “They need to have an Achilles heel; they have to have a weakness that they have to face. Superman would be a very boring hero without kryptonite. He’s a boring hero even with kryptonite.” (Perhaps it is no accident that the literal translation of the Norwegian title, Flaggermusmannen, is Bat Man. The website TV Tropes, which alerted me to that potential shout out, also notes that Nesbø’s third Harry Hole title Rødstrupe, known in the U.S. as The Redbreast, could be translated as Robin.)
“That’s what’s really interesting about modern heroes—that they can fail,” Nesbø argues. “What we’re looking for is not whether he can solve the case. I think what we really want to know is, Will the eternal soul of our protagonist be saved? To be saved, the protagonist has to do the right thing.
“It’s more unbearable to have a protagonist fail morally, than die physically,” he adds. “If he’s driving away from the volcano—will he drive back and save his worst enemy who’s trapped inside the volcano? It’s often difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of protagonists in physical danger. But we can understand moral choice.”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix, and AudioFile magazine.