Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Throwdown: Stieg vs. Jo

Last fall, after watching AMC's tv series "The Killing", I read a review which suggested authors to read in order to get a mystery fix between episodes. It was the single greatest thing I ever did because it led me to Jo Nesbo's incredible Harry Hole series. The books feature a cover with a
stamp in one corner touting Nesbo "the next Stieg Larsson" which is one of the most utterly ridiculous proclamations ever made by the publishing world. Here's why:

Quality of Books - While this is not quite the most fair statement to hold against Larsson who tragically died shortly after completing his third Millennium novel, Nesbo has written seven Harry Hole Books which are...here we go...much better than any of Stieg's novels. Before
you chuck the computer across the room, at least hear me out while I break it down starting with Stieg. Larsson's books have been nothing short of a cultural phenomenon and have sold hundreds of millions of copies. Two successful film franchises have been made about them (leading to two distinct and indelible portrayals of his heroine Lisbeth Salander) but when you look closer at the books Nesbo's superiority becomes very clear. Stieg wrote three
books: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. He wrote one great book (the first) and two good books (the second and third). Stieg's legacy mostly resides in the fact he created one of the most undeniably unique characters in modern fiction.

Nesbo on the other hand, has written seven novels (six of which I will rank since I have yet to snag the brand new and potentially great seventh book Phantom).
Great: The Redbreast, The Redeemer.
Very Good: The Devil's Star, The Snowman[1], The Leopard
Okay: Nemesis

So the final tally: Nesbo wrote two books that fall into the “Great” Category, and three which fall
into “Very Good”. He wrote one semi-clunker. Stieg wrote one great book which showed how high the ceiling was for his potential, and then slumped significantly with his next two books both falling into the “Okay – Good” Range (I was generous giving them both good, but in their defense both were page turners). My ultimate point here: had
Stieg written 3 “Great” books, he would win this one. He did not, thus…
Advantage: Nesbo

Great Characters – Stieg, as we covered above, created Lisbeth Salander who has become one of the most popular characters in novel history. Nesbo’s creation Harry Hole is completely underrated in comparison. Like Salander he is a deeply flawed, haunted character who screws up as much as he succeeds. I have never rooted for a character as openly as I have for poor Harry
Hole. He is a tragic figure and a beacon for unyielding torment and even in his most damning moments I find myself on his side. Hole remains the only character that I have ever yelled at while reading a book. I yelled “No Harry!” when the character was about to break his tenuous sobriety and his frequent downfalls are heart shredding. Public opinion says to go with Salander, but…
Advantage: Even

Style / Inner Workings / Readability – Larsson’s novels are set in Sweden; Nesbo’s in Norway. Stieg’s books are very different, the first being a serial killer story, the second and third all conspiracy based. Nesbo’s detective Harry Hole deals with his destructive personality
while also being the best investigator in Norway. Hole frequently comes up against staggering
odds and Nesbo’s ability to make each book a defined and hauntingly complex
story is a testament to his writing skills. Larsson…is nowhere near as great a writer as Nesbo. His first book was plot driven (and virtually impossible to put down) and the next two sort of lacked in that department – preferring instead to be driven by Salander’s character (ironically done with
great foresight by Stieg). His writing style is ponderous and at times plodding and very, very detail oriented. That said: each book had a point at which I could no longer put it down. In the
second and third it often took two or three hundred pages, but eventually the pages were flying by. Stieg’s books examine the dark undercurrents of fascism in Swedish politics; Nesbo’s do a
similar thing with Norway. Where Nesbotruly sets himself apart however, is his jaw dropping twists. The beginning of each Nesbo book serves up a compelling theme which runs throughout the plot and weaves itself so expertly that it is only at the thrilling end that you understand just how brilliant the book was. Again, he is a vastly superior writer.
Huge Advantage: Nesbo

Ultimately, Nesbo takes it in a rousing victory. While Stieg has had some fortunate marketing and his indelible characters, Nesbo has written better overall novels – and will presumably continue to do so. The real matchup for Nesbo will come soon: Philip Kerr and his astounding Bernie Gunther series.

[1] The Snowman could arguably go into the
great category.


Unknown said...

If you claim Jo is superior, why hasn't there been a mini-series created? It seems as though Harry would make a compelling lead character in a TV series.
Great thoughts and I too agree with your conclusion.

Unknown said...

Also - how many Harry Hole's are there? Correction: there are 9. There are 2 that are not available in Canada...how do they rank? They are pre-Redbreast.

STB's Weekly Blog said...

I have never read the two pre-Redbreast novels, but given that publishing in Canada started with Redbreast it is safe to say they are not Nesbo's best effort. Since only seven have been published here I often pretend the other two did not happen.