The Scandinavians did it. They walked into a Barnes & Noble in broad daylight and bumped off the American crime writers. How’d it happen? The purring new thriller The Snowman, by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, provides a clue.
The Snowman is set in Oslo. Unlike Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville, Oslo doesn’t have evil oozing out of the sewer grates. Norway, one character notes, has never produced a serial killer. Then married women start turning up dead in the snowdrifts, and Inspector Harry Hole hops on the trail.
Hole is a newly sober man who’s experiencing a hangover of the soul. Armed with an “ugly face” and “kind eyes,” he slogs through his work like a weary civil servant. (“Harry sighed. November. It was going to get even darker.”) But Hole’s slouch disguises a keen intellect—he’s quick to pick out tics in a suspect’s speech—and a ballooning ego. Hole thinks of himself as a master sleuth. He almost hopes the crimes will be the work of an especially worthy adversary so it will countenance his talent. “I think you want this case to be special,” his chief says. Hole wants nothing less than the Norwegian Ted Bundy.
Snow fills the air. It’s as key to the mood of The Snowman as the radiating California sun is to Raymond Chandler’s books. Snowflakes, Nesbø writes, descend like “an armada from outer space.” Snow covers the grass like a “down duvet” and “grayish-white wool.” Later: “The body was covered with white crystals, as if a layer of white fungus had been feeding on it.” If you think Inuits have countless words for snow, get a load of the Scandinavian crime writers.
The Snowman is probably the only book this summer that will feature the sentence “Harry drove along Uranienborgveien and Majorstuveien to avoid the traffic lights on Bogstadveien.” Yet as you flip the pages, something about the book begins to feel familiar. The crusty Hole’s favorite drink is Jim Beam. His personal life is a shambles. His office is decorated with photos of dead colleagues. Even a junior Pinkerton detective can predict that when Hole gets a beautiful female partner she’ll match him in pluck and, inevitably, earn his hard-won respect.
What makes you cry “uff da” is Nesbø’s final cop-genre cliché: the serial killer sizing up Hole and declaring,“We were in the same business, Harry.” This isn’t Norwegian. It’s full-blooded American. The Snowman is strung together with great care, playful in certain stretches, grisly in others, all of it highly readable. But Nesbø is intent on looting from Hall of Fame mystery writers stretching from Hammett to Michael Connelly. It’s as depressing as when you discover a talented European director who wants to be the next George Lucas.
Perversely, this may be why Americans dig Scandinavian crime novels. The dark skies and wintry settings convince us mystery lovers that we’re heading off into terra incognita. But the plots are warm and comforting, full of archetypes we’ve come to love. The Swedes and Norwegians haven’t killed American writers. They’ve become their vigilant heirs. These are the same mean streets they’re taking us down, only now they’re covered with snow.