After musing on the story — friends go on a snowboard trip, and, then, one by one start dying — he came up with what he thought was the perfect title: "The Snowman." His friends' response? "They said, 'Probably,' " recalls Nesbo, 51, in a phone call from Oslo. " 'Only problem is, there's no snowman.' "
Rebuffed, the author reflected on the image itself — about "something so trivial, even cozy," but also potentially menacing.
And Nesbo dreamed up a domestic scene in which a family stands around a kitchen window: When the mother praises the son's snowman, he points out that he hadn't built one. Then the boy notices that rather than facing outward, toward the street, the snowman is staring in the window.
"Normally I start with a plot," the author says, "and write a synopsis, and the ideas come from the construction. This was the opposite."
The novel that's grown out of that misfired movie title and that scene of foreboding hasn't entirely shaken off its horror film origins. "The Snowman," which Alfred A. Knopf released this month, could make Nesbo the writer most likely to take the ice-cold crown in the critically acclaimed — and now bestselling — category of Nordic noir.
A vacuum has recently opened: Swedish novelist Henning Mankell just retired his brilliant sad-sack detective Kurt Wallander, and Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium novels have sold almost 50 million copies worldwide, died in 2004. What's a reader to do?
"This is crime writing of the highest order," Marcel Berlins wrote in a "Snowman" review in the Times of London that asserts its author as heir apparent. Berlins praises characters "as strong as the story, where an atmosphere of evil permeates, and the tension begins in the first chapter and never lets up."
Knopf is leaving nothing to chance: The publisher pasted Berlins' quote on the cover of "Snowman" galleys sent to the press.
Nesbo — a former stockbroker and longtime rock musician who looks like a middleweight boxer — could be the right man at the right time.
The author grew up in the Norwegian coastal city of Molde and earned a degree in economics. He read widely as a young man — he lists Nabokov, Ibsen and Bukowski among his favorites but says he "put off" writing until he was 37. The discovery of the novel "The Killer Inside Me" changed his life.
"I wasn't that into crime novels at all," he says, "but a friend introduced me to the work of Jim Thompson — I loved all his books. When I read [Raymond] Chandler, it was a bit comic, these romantic, melancholy monologues. To me, Thompson was braver, more extreme."
Nesbo's first novel, "The Bat Man," featuring Det. Harry Hole, came out in Norway in 1997. Hole is one of the chief appeals of Nesbo's work. An obsessive, impulsive recovering alcoholic — "alcohol is his kryptonite," Nesbo says — he's also a genius at nuanced observations.
"He's a character of contradiction," Nesbo says. "He's devoted his life to his job — catching killers and putting them behind bars. But at the same time he doesn't really believe this solves any problems — for himself, for the victims, or for society. He likes the hunt — he's not really interested in the catching. He's like some of the serial killers he's been hunting, for whom the actual killing is an anticlimax."
Hole's relationships with women are similarly frustrating. "His unhappiness," the author says, "stems from his restlessness."
Nesbo and his protagonist share a love of American alternative country music — artists like Ryan Adams and Gillian Welch who sing songs of poetic desperation. These tastes come out of Nesbo's experience seeing American bands playing in '80s Oslo, as well as his New York-reared father's love of Hank Williams.
"It has to drive the story; if it doesn't, I take it away," he says. "But music is very important in telling you who someone is, or who they want to be — who they want to present themselves as."
Nesbo is not the only writer publishers are hoping will step into the Nordic fray. Karin Fossum is a well-regarded, psychologically penetrating Norwegian writer whose "Bad Intentions" will be released stateside this summer. Camilla Läckberg a young Swede whose U.S. debut, "The Ice Princess," came out in March and has an enormous following.
But the smart money is still on Nesbo. Jules Herbert, a mystery buyer for Barnes & Noble, says the quality of Nesbo's novel, as well as Knopf's marketing push, could break him big in the States. Nesbo's similarities to Larsson make the arrival of "The Snowman" even more fortuitous.
How well does the appeal of one writer rub off on another? "In genres where you have voracious readers," Herbert says, "it works very well." Likening one writer's work to another is especially important in a marketplace so crowded that customers can be overwhelmed.
"It's human nature to want to prolong a good thing," Sara Nelson, books director of O, the Oprah Magazine, says of Knopf's hopes. "The problem is you don't really know what it was about those books of Stieg Larsson's that made them so successful. It seems literal and obvious to say, 'Here's another male, Scandinavian crime writer.' But there may be something less obvious in those books. So much of this is just unknowable. And some trends are meant to be three books long."
Whatever happens, the subgenre could be jump-started once again when director David Fincher's U.S. adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is released this winter.
Knopf will publish the novel that preceded "The Snowman," "The Redeemer," next year, and the one that follows it, "The Leopard," in 2013. (HarperCollins previously published fourHole novels in the U.S.)
As for the eternal question of why Scandinavia — a murder-averse region better known for centuries of peace, functional furniture and bland cuisine — should spawn the world's richest body of crime fiction since the California of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Nesbo is as stumped as anyone.
"It may have to do with the storytelling tradition in Scandinavia," he says. "The cliché is that we have these long dark nights where people stay in and tell each other stories — horror stories, fairy tales, dark stuff...." He laughs. "Maybe there's something to that."
Timberg blogs at TheMisreadCity.com
Jo Nesbo will appear in conversation with James Ellroy on Tuesday at a sold-out event at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles , 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. writersblocpresents.com/