Håkan Nesser tells Time Out why he is a very different novelist
We all know the story by now. In 2004, Swedish writer Stieg Larsson dies of a heart attack, leaving behind the manuscripts for the Millennium Trilogy, an as-yet-unpublished detective fiction series. The books go on to become a worldwide phenomenon, with more than 20 million copies sold in 41 countries. This year, a film of the first instalment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is released in cinemas – sequels are on standby. The hype keeps on churning, six years after Larsson’s death.
But the writer’s posthumous success isn’t just casting a shadow over the loved ones he left behind (Larsson’s long-term partner is engaged in a battle with his family over the will, and even claims to be in possession of a fourth manuscript). It’s affecting every Swedish author who even thinks about writing a detective novel.
Take Håkan Nesser. First published in 1988, the 60-year-old Swede has written more than 20 books – nine of which have been made into films – and has won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award three times. Which is why we’re a little bemused when he’s touted to us as ‘the new Stieg Larsson’.
So, we hear you’re the new Stieg Larsson. Whatever I am, I am not the new Stieg Larsson. Absolutely not.
Is it annoying to get asked about Stieg all the time? It’s this phenomenon that, being Swedish, you get questions about Stieg Larsson. A journalist asked me the other week, ‘Aren’t you all Stieg’d out?’ We’ve even invented a verb for all the press about Stieg. I liked his books and I’m sorry he’s dead – if he were alive he’d be able to answer all these questions – but we’re so different.
How are you different? He wrote about a political conspiracy, and his main theme is the abuse of women. In Sweden, the first book was called Men Who Hate Women. Whereas I write a crossover between crime and mainstream fiction. All Stieg and I have in common is that we write in Swedish.
After Stieg, writers such as yourself are often collected under the banner of ‘Swedish crime fiction’. Is that really a genre? If you were to read four or five Swedish crime writers, you would realise there is no such thing. We’re all supposed to be depressed. We drink too much, don’t talk, are suicidal, listen to opera, get more depressed.
Still, your new books are set in Sweden, whereas the older ones are set in a fictional country. Were you consciously capitalising on the attention Stieg brought to Sweden? Because I’d written 10 books about a fictitious country, it was time to do something different, just not to repeat myself. I realise I’m part of a strange hype, but it’s come very late to me. In the beginning, there was no hype at all – quite the opposite. So for me, I’m 60, I don’t care about these things.
Detective fiction remains very popular. But with so many writers inventing new inspectors and new cases all the time, how do you keep it interesting? How do you keep books interesting? I just want to write a good story. Whether it’s a crime story or not isn’t important. One problem now is that they publish every Swedish writer that wants to write a crime story, which is absurd. It may not kill crime fiction, but it’s a disease these days.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie got terrible reviews. How do you feel about seeing your books on the big screen? Some are good, some are not so good. The book is always more important than the film. Reading is always more important than watching a movie. My dog can watch a movie. Reading a book makes us human beings. With the help of language, we tell stories to each other. That’s essential. The new English translation of Håkan Nesser’s The Inspector and Silence is published this week by Mantle.