Literature in the Departure Lounge: Market Influences and Literary Shapes

in the Fiction of Jo Nesbø and Harlan Coben


  David Platten

University of Leeds


The juice of the crime novel is squeezed from plot, style and character; now a fourth element, location, has come to preoccupy the book industry. Prompted by the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, US publishers have, over the past five years, combed the world in search of exotic crime adventures. New geographical designations have emerged, such as ‘Tartan noir’, ‘Japanese mystery writing’, ‘Mexican narco literature’, and 'Nordic noir’. These labels denote constellations of practising writers — some of which have been established for many years — that put certain regions and nations on the literary map. With increasing numbers of localised crime fictions migrating elsewhere in translated form, either as literature or adapted to audio-visual media, the genre has acquired a planetary dimension. But do these transformations and intersections foster genuine cultural diversity? Or, do they perpetuate a global traffic of stories representing a moribund monoculture, the ascendancy of a formulaic, intrinsically un-creative form of writing in a non-literary world? The preponderance of crime titles in airport bookshops would suggest the latter; however, bearing in mind the crushing weight of the academic monographs and doctoral theses on crime fiction produced over the past 30 years, this is an assumption that is at least worth testing. So, this chapter will consider examples of the work of two crime writers who have featured prominently on the shelves of airport bookshops during 2015: the Norwegian Jo Nesbø and the American Harlan Coben. Their fiction will be read in the light of research conducted in the cognate fields of the ‘World Literature’ movement, adaptation studies, and reflections (primarily in France and in French studies) on the nature of the ‘contemporary’.

Moretti, the Canon and the Market

Our starting-point will be Franco Moretti’s seminal 2000 essay entitled 'The Slaughterhouse of Literature', in which the author argues that literary canons are generated by markets and not by the judgements of elite cultural bodies such as learned societies or university departments. Moretti cites James Raven’s study of British publishing between 1750 and 1770, which explains how the ‘interplay’ between readers and publishers ‘in the marketplace’ created a canon of the eighteenth-century novel, dominated by Sterne, Fielding, Defoe and Richardson (Moretti 2013, p. 68). This grand, though restricted, corpus of works foreshadows precisely the syllabi compiled generations later by dons in the great universities of Europe. So, at least in so far as the eighteenth-century English novel is concerned, value would accrue from the choices of anonymous readers, made normally during the period of the author’s life and corroborated incrementally by experts living in very different times.

In endeavouring to understand the formation of literary canons, Moretti borrows (from economists Arthur de Vany and W. David Walls) the term ‘information cascade’, to describe how the accumulation of positive recommendations for one particular novel — which may consist of nothing more than ‘I have read novel A’ — could ensure its survival into the next generation, while five potential competitors plunge into a well of silence (Moretti 2013, p. 69). Any negative response will rapidly consign a book to the vaults of the ‘great unread’,[1] the other 99.5% of published novels. Helpfully (for the purposes of this study) Moretti tests his ideas by reading fiction of the lost rivals to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, mystery stories written by those contemporaries of Sherlock’s creator who slipped into obscurity. Conan Doyle presents an excellent case study for the formation of a literary canon, albeit an indirect one, since he attained literary status posthumously. Moretti describes him as ‘socially supercanonical right away, but academically canonical only a hundred years later’ (Moretti 2013, p. 67). The question with Sherlock is whether or not it is possible to locate the trigger for the ‘information cascade’, the reason why, at the beginning of the twentieth-century, readers chose Conan Doyle, and not L. T. Meade or Grant Allen. And the hypothesis is that, at this early juncture in the history of British crime fiction, readers ‘must have “discovered” clues’ (Moretti 2013, p. 72).

Clues interest Moretti because he sees them as ‘formal devices’, in that while their concrete manifestation necessarily shifts from one scenario to the next, their narrative function, ‘the encrypted reference to the criminal’, remains constant. In Moretti’s way of thinking, transposable literary forms have engineered the creation of a world literature, which has evolved from a mosaic of local, clearly demarcated cultures existing prior to the eighteenth-century to something akin to a network, albeit one governed by a tension between unity and diversity, as stories or genres migrate to other countries. It is a process comprising multiple intersections, defined ‘always as a compromise between foreign form and local materials’ (Moretti 2013, p. 52). Unfortunately, Moretti’s scrutiny of clues in the work of Conan Doyle’s ‘lost rivals’ yields less-than-satisfactory results. Although he ascertains that some obscure contemporaries of Conan Doyle produced clue-less narratives, he is also compelled to acknowledge that, especially over the latter part of Conan Doyle’s career, the evidence is less conclusive: mystery stories without decodable clues are as successful as those with them, and Conan Doyle himself seems to have been indifferent to their significance. This may be explained by the nature of the phenomenon, in that the practice of encoding narrative fictions with clues is a more complex process than is commonly understood, and, therefore, it would have taken longer for writers to master the techniques. So, we must wait for Agatha Christie and the Golden Age of British detective fiction to encounter mystery stories fully grounded in clues.

Notwithstanding, Moretti’s difficulties in trying to furnish a ‘scientific’ demonstration of his theory, the notion that literary canons are formed by market trends and readers’ choices, and the sense that successful artists are able to see off their rivals by anticipating tastes and preferences of their potential consumers and building these assumptions into the creative process, is suggestive. In France, the crime genres sprang from a different source. Towards the end of the nineteenth-century authors of fait divers — lurid accounts of true crimes published in the nascent tabloid press — tried their hands at fiction. Their names — Fortuné du Boisgobey, Henry Cauvin and Eugène Chavette — still figure in the annals, but these writers may not have appreciated the significance of the approach taken by another journalist some two decades earlier, who realised that in order to entice a literary public, fait divers-style crime stories had to be embedded within the protracted form of the psychological novel, which was the pre-eminent mode of literary fiction in France during the Belle Époque.[2] And so, in France, Émile Gaboriau is lauded as the first crime novelist, and his stories, including L’Affaire Lerouge (1866) and Le Crime d’Orcival (1867) remain in print today. Though laborious by modern standards, given their propensity for long, introspective digressions, these novels thrilled the readers of Gaboriau’s time.

Moretti has made large waves in academic communities concerned with the study of literature, mainly on account of his advocacy of empirical research methodologies and of his aversion to the close reading of texts, the sine qua non of university degree courses in English Literature.[3] In this instance the conclusion that ‘the market selects the canon’ (Moretti 2013, p. 69) questions the validity of literary (and more broadly) cultural distinctions. In another contribution, he asserts that ‘the excommunication of mass culture is truly a thing of the past’ (Moretti 2013, p. 31). A student of influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would counter that readers’ choices are not free but will always be guided by the cultural capital that they have acquired from social institutions (family, school, possibly church, mosque or synagogue). The field work supporting Bourdieu’s landmark opus, La Distinction, demonstrates that learned behaviours and attitudes are instrumental in the reproduction of cultural hierarchies from one generation to the next. Still, given the existence of multiple digital platforms now available to nearly all economic classes in western societies, and the greater likelihood that individuals can and will float between different social and professional strata, the cultural models developed by Bourdieu now appear strained.[4] As Michael Wolf surmises, digitisation has transformed cultural content into ‘a very liquid asset’ (Wolf 2000, p. 92).

Provocative though Moretti’s contributions may seem to conventional scholars of literature, when viewed through a wider-angled lens they appear more conservative. Although he draws on theories of economics and evolutionary biology, Moretti occupies a mainly literary universe and rarely ventures out into the ‘intermedial’ galaxy beyond it. Surveying a palette of creative media, Henry Jenkins argues that we now exist, and mostly participate, in a ‘convergence culture’, a landscape defined by ‘flow of content across multiple media platforms [and] co-operation between multiple media industries’ (Jenkin 2006, p. 2). Within this culture, creativity is dispersed through different adaptations, of which films of books, television dramas, comics, and computer games are prevalent. These ‘aggregate texts’ (cited in Parody 2011, p. 211), consolidated over time, are apt to form fictional worlds or, in marketing terms, franchises — James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Twilight — and creative artists with different skills operate as ‘franchise storytellers’, tasked with producing imaginative extensions of these worlds. Operating within the franchise system, the artist is no longer the originator of ideas but more likely to form part of a team of builders, builders of vast, fantastical worlds. Some may choose to step in and out of these worlds. The involvement of a well-known artist in a franchise may be seen to enrich the artistic content and, moreover, encourage sceptical commentators to suspend negative value judgements: ‘(…) re-interpretations, of a character, origin narrative, or world, are positioned as revitalizing and giving depth to a creation, not diluting or betraying it, especially when the intervening interpreter is a big name auteur’ (Parody 2011, p. 216). A perfect illustration of just such a ‘big name’ intervention occurred in 2008 with the publication of Devil May Care, a ‘James Bond novel’ written by Sebastian Faulks to commemorate the centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth.

Novelists like Faulks dip into the franchise system at their own leisure. Although Jenkins’ ‘convergence culture’ is palpable in the audio-visual industries, notably the cinema and video-gaming, in the world of the book there still seems to be an appetite for divergence. On the other hand, the capacity of the franchise system to affect creative processes existing outside of it should not be underestimated. In the world of popular literature, it has magnified the value of seriality, of multiple stories written by the same author, with recurrent characters and themes. And, as such, it may have had a subtle impact on the art of the contemporary novel, stimulating what Jenkins terms the ‘core aesthetic impulse’ (cited in Parody 2011, p. 214) to create and evoke fictional worlds, almost, in the eyes of some, to the exclusion of any other literary aim. These are the types of big-canvas novels, normally belonging to the fantasy or crime genres, that are easy to brand.

Perhaps we should reappraise Moretti’s insistence that literature, indeed our ideas about literariness, go hand in glove with commerce. There is a suspicious serenity about this relationship. It is easy to imagine how the market could produce distortions that orientate the behaviour of artists. For example, if the promise of filming rights lies uppermost in a novelist’s mind, then it could be said to shape the way in which he or she writes. Moreover, the promotion of any new publication, including press reviews, will influence the way in which the publication is initially received. One might wonder to what extent the market suppresses literariness, or whether it is possible these days for any new work by an established author to be judged as literature.

September 2015 saw the arrival of the fourth instalment of the Millennium series, nearly eleven years after Stieg Larsson’s death. The publication of The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz heralded the moment when the Millennium series, and arguably the fashion for ‘Nordic Noir’, became definitively an entertainment franchise. It would seem a timely moment to explore questions of literariness and the market in relation to Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø, one of its most prolific and commercially successful exponents.

Nordic Noir, and the Branding of Jo Nesbø

Oil, discovered off the Norwegian coast in 1969, and a curious assassination, that of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986, created an environment conducive to the emergence of an indigenous crime-writing movement. Although the oil reserves have substantially endowed the welfare state in Norway, the boom also increased social and economic inequalities, and, as Lee Siegel writes, the crime novel became ‘an effective vehicle for the expression of fears and resentment’ (Siegel 2014, p. 5). But the pivotal event — in Moretti’s way of thinking the trigger for the formation of a new genre — was the murder of Olaf Palme, and particularly the fact that the murder has never been solved. Historically, Sweden has been the preeminent national power in the region. The mystery surrounding Palme’s death fomented paranoia, and the lack of closure allowed for the creation of multiple conspiracies, which rippled across Scandinavia. Siegel suggests that without the assassination ‘there might never have been a Stieg Larsson’ (Siegel 2014, p. 5). And indeed, Larsson’s fiction posits the existence of a malign shadow looming over civic society, which may be generalised as rampant political and economic corruption eroding progressive values. In the Millennium series, a form of social democracy associated with the Scandinavian countries, and much envied in other parts of Europe, is portrayed as under threat.

Nesbø’s fiction also reflects institutional corruption and social problems in Norway’s two main cities of Oslo and Bergen, and in The Redbreast he puts his country’s connivance with Nazi Germany during World War 2 under the microscope. However, seen as a project, his work is less overtly politicised than Larsson’s. On the other hand, of the major Scandinavian crime writers riding the current wave — including the late Henning Mankell and the Icelander Arnaldur Indridason — he has the strongest brand.

Since he first debuted in 1997 with The Bat, Nesbø has assembled an impressive œuvre, which, from the publication in translation of The Devil’s Star in 2005, has been pumped at regular intervals into the consciousness of an Anglophone readership. Most people who have read more than one Nesbø novel will be familiar with the author’s glamorous career. A professional footballer with a top Norwegian club, injury forced premature retirement and a change of direction. Stockbroker by day, and singer-guitarist with a chart-topping Norwegian rock band by night, he was invited to write a memoir of his nights on the road but came up with The Bat instead. Physically he cuts an impressive figure. Though now in his mid-fifties, he is tall and slim with cropped blonde hair. At various television promotion appearances — on the ‘David Letterman Show’ in the US, or at the ‘Richard and Judy Reading Club’ in the UK — he is invariably dressed in dark jacket, jeans and trainers. This rock n’ roll persona is projected onto the pages of his fiction through frequent references to alternative music, descriptions of uninhibited sexual practices and of the consumption of recreational drugs, and most of all through the reader’s access to the turbulent life of Harry Hole, his favourite detective who features in ten novels. Harry is a genuine alter ego, a flawed, vulnerable negative of the author, whose troubles invite empathy and may help to deflect the impact on the reader of the passages of extreme, sadistic violence, much of which is directed at female characters.

A glance at the paratextual features of the paperback version of Police (2014), the tenth ‘Harry Hole’ novel, gives some idea of the care with which the Nesbø brand is nurtured. The black-and-white jacket depicts the silhouette of a man standing among tombstones, in a thigh-length coat holding a gun, the whitened sky speckled with a small flock of birds, with the whole timidly obscured by drops of sleety snow. Below the name of the author (in black) and the title of the novel (in red) is the strapline ‘Over 23 million books sold worldwide’, in smaller font but with ’23 million’ similarly highlighted in red. The inside cover supplies a tourist map of Oslo with, inlaid, a smaller map showing the location of the city in relation to the surrounding region. Although all Nesbø novels translated into English supply maps of Oslo, this one is unusually ornate.

On the next page the reader is greeted with a portrait shot of the author, once again in black-and-white, gazing intently into the camera over the customary blurb printed on the backdrop of his upper torso. This gives the usual, impressive information about football, rock music and the global reach of his fiction (which has now been published in 48 languages) as well as the web address for those curious to know more. On the facing page we find a novelty: a potted profile of his detective under the strapline ‘MEET HARRY HOLE’, which is presented as a pastiche of the curriculum vitae. Under the final category of the CV, ‘Marital Status’, we read ‘Single, but his heart belongs to Rakel Fauke, with whom he has a very complex relationship’. Then, following the standard title pages, publishing and copyright information, and a dedication to the memory of Nesbø’s deceased brother Knut (who, the reader learns, was also a footballer and guitarist), the novel begins; only this beginning gives the appearance of a false start. It describes the locations of an automatic pistol in a cupboard in Rakel’s house, and of Harry lying in the intensive care ward of an Oslo hospital. This preface, which might befuddle a first-time reader of Nesbø’s fiction, constructs a bridge with Phantom, the previous Harry Hole adventure, thus positioning the novel within the series; its significance, with respect to the plot of Police, will only become apparent after approximately 600 pages.

At the back of the novel there is a further page repeating the author’s profile, the address of the official website, and a brief resumé of translator Dan Bartlett’s career. The back jacket displays a quick-fire, anticipatory narrative of events in the novel, accompanied by the usual approbatory comments culled from reviews in the British press; however, splashed over the back inside cover is the image of the front jacket of The Son, the next novel in the pipeline, also with the message ‘Over 23 million books sold worldwide’. Although The Son is not a ‘Harry Hole’ adventure, it is positioned as the next link in the chain of titles promoting the Nesbø brand.

These paratextual features emphasise the potency of the author as a marketing tool, his affinity with his leading character, who is also a marketing tool (and a fantasy figure for sections of his readership), and the now familiar exoticisation of the ‘Nordic’. It is evidence of a slick publicity machine that drives sales of Nesbø’s novels by situating his fiction within a cultural demographic that is broad (‘23 million books sold worldwide’) and, as importantly, contemporary, and which has been operative at least since the enthusiastic critical reception of The Snowman in 2010, his most popular novel to date. However, this marketing rests upon an assumption that most readers, having once opened one of his novels, will read it, finish it, and think about reading another. Ultimately, the promotion of a writer, or of a single novel, is consequent to some intrinsic quality relating to the artistic enterprise. As the renowned American publisher Phyllis Grann advises: ‘If you want to break somebody out, you need to package them in a way that lets everybody know they do one thing and it’s different from anybody else’ (cited in Konigsberg 2007, p. 8). Aesthetic considerations will always precede the mechanics of the book industry, so, in Moretti-like fashion, we are propelled to quest for the source, to identify and understand that ‘one thing’ that will have attracted the trained eye of the publisher. In the case of Nesbø that ‘one thing’ might be, or have been, simply the quality of his writing; an evocative, filmic, though none the less literary style, which has been well preserved by his translator. Chapter 15 of Police begins: ‘The black VW Sharan slowly rose in circles towards the blue sky’ (Nesbø 2014, p. 193). This sentence is remarkable for the omission of the agents of the action — the yellow crane and its driver mentioned on the following page — so that the reader’s first impression is one of an autonomous, aerial object, as if he or she is contemplating the canvas of a modern-day Chagall. The image is embellished by an extended simile delivered in the second sentence: ‘Like a rocket in super slow motion, Katrine thought, watching the trail, which was not fire and smoke but water running from the doors and boot of the crushed car, dissolving into drops and glistening in the sun on its way down to the river’ (ibid.). In a manner that recalls Raymond Chandler, the poetic timbre of the prose transcends the demands of the narrative.

This is good writing, but it is contained in a text which is as much a product of the Nesbø brand as it is a work of literature. If there is a particular essence to Nesbø’s fiction, then its scent will be strongest in The Snowman, the ‘break-out’ novel that established his international reputation. Clear structural parities between the two novels invite a comparative analysis, which will show how the subliminal encryption of a promotional rhetoric in Police disperses the essence of his fiction, an essence which, paradoxically, will reveal itself through its absence.

With the beginnings of both novels Nesbø ignores the first lesson of creative writing classes, which is to refrain from starting with a description of the weather. The first sentence of The Snowman — ‘It was the day that the snow came’ (Nesbø 2010, p. 3) — is both antiphrastic and cataphoric, as the reader will soon learn that the coming of the snow in this novel translates to a sense of foreboding; it signals the promise of something macabre and monstrous, rather than outdoor, child-like fun. The first paragraph of Police is dedicated to an ecstatic description of the city of Oslo at the twilight of a late summer’s day, providing the literary equivalent of postcard images to complement the maps given in the prelude to the novel. It culminates in a personification of the city — ‘The sun did not want to relinquish the town; it stretched out its fingers, like a prolonged farewell through a train window’ (Nesbø 2014, p. 7) — emphasising the importance of place. However, whereas the beginning to The Snowman alludes instantly to the notion that the coming of the snow represents something other than a change in the climate, the near-pastoral lyricism of the first page of Police, celebrating the city of Oslo, underscores the extent to which Nesbø’s creative practice has become imbricated with the brand of Nordic noir.

Nesbø is often hailed for his plotting. He will not embark on the writing of a novel before he has written a long, precise synopsis, and in interviews he speaks interestingly about his father’s talents as a storyteller and the value of storytelling in his early family life. Yet, he is first and foremost a specialist in set pieces, in the dressing and enacting of dramatic scenes, which involve painting pictures in words.

Consider two memorable set pieces from the two novels in question. In The Snowman, Nesbø guides his reader through the mind’s eye of a woman running for her life in a dark forest. It is a second-by-second excursion into the outer realms of human terror, beginning with her ‘heaving, rasping breathlessness’ which ‘rent the tranquillity…as if she were tearing the greaseproof paper wrapped around her daughters’ packed lunches’ (Nesbø 2010, p. 91), and ending with the obliteration of hope as, with her leg caught in a snare, she stretches, ‘like a desperate beggar’ (Nesbø 2010, p. 96), for a hatchet that she knows to be beyond reach. In Police, a male student receives a late-night call from his boss asking him to investigate the ski-lift at a nearby station which has mysteriously lurched into action. As he skis down towards the cabin from which the lift is controlled, a familiar place is transformed into ‘a cold, dark and uninhabited planet’ (Nesbø 2014, p. 52), and, as with the episode in The Snowman, the narrative worms its way into the mind of the character to convey a mounting fear, provoked by echoes, sudden reflections and the knowledge that something odd has happened. In Police, it is a confused mind, alternately invaded by sexual fantasies, and the memory of reading about the rape and brutal murder of a young girl years earlier at the same spot. Immediately prior to the moment when the gruesome discovery engulfs the student’s consciousness, the writing contracts. Personal pronouns and active verbs are omitted: ‘Listened to the phone ringing (…) And then there it was again. The feeling. The feeling that someone was there’ (Nesbø 2014, p. 59).

Although there are many similarities between these two passages, it is the salient difference between them that encapsulates a shift in Nesbø’s literariness, as his career has advanced and the serial function of his Harry Hole novels has become more pronounced. In the episode from The Snowman, the reader experiences, vicariously, the terror of a character who is about to be horribly murdered, whereas in Police we share the shock of the aftermath of just such a murder. In the first we occupy the place of the victim, in the second that of the spectator. Moreover, these passages are emblematic of the two novels in which they feature. Both are concerned with the crimes of a serial killer and therefore rely on the principle of repetition. And, in both cases, Nesbø ebulliently produces large red herrings; the most sceptical of readers will find themselves heading down garden paths. However, the composition of Police reflects its position within the œuvre, as the tenth in the series of Harry Hole adventures. Initially it adopts a portrait gallery structure, whereby in each chapter new or familiar characters are introduced or re-introduced to the readership. Thus, Chapter two is narrated from the perspective of mildly disaffected police officer Anton Mittet, Chapter three from that of retired psychiatrist Ståle Aune, before, in Chapter four, the focalisation shifts from Gunnar Hagen to Mikael Bellman, Head of the Serious Crime Squad and Chief of Police respectively. The Nesbø fan is treated to an extended titillation with Harry’s very belated entrance in Chapter 16, by which time the pattern of the prose, shifting back and forth between different protagonists’ points of view, has been established.

Another marketing feature of Nesbø’s style which is prevalent in Police is a type of ‘landscaping’ technique, describing those passages in which he seems to sketch a perfect literary landscape for would-be adaptors, those who, in the future, might be charged with converting novelistic prose into screenplay. Consider this excursion into the mind of the important character of Katrine Bratt:

‘There was a long silence coming from Oslo. Katrine felt like going for a walk, down to the fishing boats in Bryggen, buying a bag of cod heads, heading home to her flat in Møhlenpris and slowly making dinner and watching Breaking Bad while, hopefully, it started to rain again’ (Nesbø 2014, p. 93).

Here, the subjective ‘Katrine felt like…’ triggers a montage of shots that the film-maker might employ to give the viewer insight into the character’s life; it reads more as an occluded instruction to the adaptor than as a reflection of the character’s mood. Moreover, the reference to the cult US television drama series Breaking Bad, suggesting a commonality of cultural taste, appeals directly to the Nesbø readership and potential audience. The message is clear: readers of Nesbø are the sort of people who admire Breaking Bad. Another example relates to the ski-lift episode discussed above, as Nesbø makes dramatic use of the connector ‘And’, deployed to start three sentences in close proximity to each other. The effect is to delineate without qualification each visual aspect of the horrifying spectacle, thus highlighting those specific images of horror that, in a filmic narrative of this scene, might be presented to the spectator.

The language of The Snowman is poetic but, in this novel, it is more difficult to isolate passages designed for adaptation. Here, almost the entirety of the narrative is oriented towards a literary imperative, the depiction of fear gripping characters, of women feeling watched, and of men watching. The prose is thick with verbs and nouns of perception, protagonists are always implicated in descriptions. In police stations, supermarkets, cars and television studios, the female characters especially lead fraught existences, with every unexplained sensation generating anxiety and disquiet. There are also sexual frustrations of different orders, affecting both genders, but the narrative returns time and again to the predatory male gaze and concomitant objectification of the female body. For this is a world in which a psychotic killer of women is at large, in which the characters (and the reader) live in trepidation, waiting for the coming of the snow and an encounter with a random snowman that prefigures (or contains part of!) the next corpse.

The key to the novel, or rather its unifying factor, is the ominous figure of the snowman, which constitutes a precise metaphor for the phenomenon of the psychotic serial killer. With the melting of the snow, the figure disappears, and the serial killer resumes his everyday persona, as an ordinary citizen with no outward signs of instability in his professional or personal life. The snowman is thus a literary conceit which is blended into the narrative. Conversely, the idea driving the plot of Police — that former or serving police officers are punished for their past mistakes — facilitates the creation of baroque, elaborate set pieces but cannot allow for much insight into the nature of the psychosis and therefore seems ultimately contrived. Police lacks the literariness of The Snowman, conveyed by the symbolic radiance and acuity of the snowmen figures, but it does bear the imprint of the Nesbø brand. The repetitive pattern to both narratives reflects obliquely the addictive nature of crime fiction, as readers return time and time again to their favourite authors. Yet, there is a qualitative difference between them, which is related to the ways in which a novel like Police, through its language and form, supports the branding of its author. Whereas The Snowman is, arguably, a stand-alone masterpiece of the noir genre, Police is an enjoyable read for the Nesbø fan.

Nesbø’s distinctive literary idiom partially explains his success, though this literariness risks being compromised by the branding of the author, the commercial context which envelops his work. His ambassadorial role for the Nordic Noir is reflected by a tension in the novels which is only partially poetic.[5] Recent announcements regarding the suspension of the Harry Hole series, an invitation from the Hogarth Shakespeare project to convert Macbeth into a noir fiction, and opportunities to write for television would suggest that Nesbø is aware of the need to re-balance commercial success with artistic integrity. It is a preoccupation of one of his main competitors in the English-language universe of the airport bookshop, the New York-based thriller writer Harlan Coben.

The Digital World of Harlan Coben

By 2014, Nesbø had sold 20 million novels worldwide. Coben, who has published a new novel in the third week of April of every year since 2001, had sold 15 million in France alone. Unlike Nesbø, Coben is not associated with a fashionable wave of novelists, and his writing — as we shall see below — exudes ordinariness; yet the curious relationship he has forged with the French reading public has afforded him considerable influence over the dissemination of his creativity, initially in cinema and currently through television. His ‘break-out’ novel, Tell No One (2002), was eventually transformed into a French-language film, available to English-speaking audiences only in sub-titled form. Normally this would limit the commercial scope of the film, and indeed, according to Coben, the decision was made for aesthetic, rather than commercial reasons. He rejected the Hollywood script, opting instead to generate a ‘French sensibility’ through adaptation (Coben 2014, Interview with Keslassy). Directed by Guillaume Canet, Ne le dis à personne became the ninth most profitable film of 2006 in France, and in 2007 won four César awards. A ‘Hollywood re-make’ is apparently pending (with Liam Neeson rumoured to be in the starring role), and with its release a transatlantic process of adaptation will come full circle.

With this example of art and commerce existing in happy fusion, aesthetic judgements have preceded commercial ones, and the novelist’s role in the process of adaptation is accentuated rather than diminished. Beyond Hollywood and the American cable networks, Coben’s career in the audio-visual media looks set to flourish. In October 2014, filming of a televisual adaptation of his 2002 novel No Second Chance began, the first of three television dramas adapted from his novels that are in the offing. No Second Chance was commissioned by TF1, the main terrestrial channel in France, and is slated to be broadcast at prime time, which would guarantee an audience of over 8 million viewers. And in this instance the role of the novelist is extended, with Coben occupying the position of ‘showrunner’ (Coben 2014, Interview with Keslassy), a concept developed in the American television industry which defines the person responsible for the day-to-day operation of a series. Here the novelist assumes executive power over the creative process, making final decisions on, for example, matters of casting, and thus significantly orienting the creative adaptation of his own work.

Leaving aside the personality of the artist — Coben stresses the importance of relationships between author and director or producer, especially issues of trust and respect — one might venture that the novelist’s influence over the process of adaptation will be limited by his or her technical competence. So, when it is a matter of ‘transcoding’, the step-by-step process of determining how important literary features might translate into filmic or televisual narrative, the novelist must defer to others’ expertise. With the adaptation of Tell No One, however, the project was predicated on an explicit, creative objective, that of supplying a ‘French sensibility’. So, in this instance the process of adaptation was primarily about making things French, a form of indigenisation which was achieved at a stroke by shooting the film in France with French actors. Strangely though, barring the chase sequence crossing the Paris ring-road and the substitution of a banlieue community in the film — which is represented positively at a time when serious urban disorder had led President Sarkozy to decry rioters in the French suburbs as la racaille (‘scum’) — for a downtown crack-den in Coben’s novel, the ‘Frenchness’ of Ne le dis à personne seems peripheral to the aesthetics of the film.[6]

In an influential study of adaptation, Linda Hutcheon underscores the differences between ‘telling’ (the verbal) and ‘showing’ (the audio-visual). She determines that each mode ‘has its own specificity, if not its own essence’ (Hutcheon 2006, p. 24). Her argument is illustrated by a comparative analysis of a scene from the Merchant/Ivory production of Howard’s End with the passage in E. M. Forster’s novel that inspired it, in which the Schlegel family attend a concert. In the novel, Forster is preoccupied with describing how the experience of hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony inflects the mood of his characters, especially the emotionally troubled Helen, whereas the concert scene in the film foregrounds Helen’s encounter with a stranger, Leonard Bast, who will play an important part in her life. The characters in the film seem oblivious to the music. Psychological depth and aesthetic sensibilities are highlighted in the novel, plot development in the film, the irony, of course, being that the reader of the novel must rely on Forster’s words to appreciate the wonder of Beethoven, whereas the film spectator experiences the beauty of the music at first hand through the sound track.

A crucial event occurs in the Coben novel Tell No One when the protagonist Dr Beck succeeds in opening an encrypted email from his wife, lending credence to the possibility that, far from dead and buried eight years previously, she is alive and wants to meet. Beck’s cracking of the code, as he shuffles from the front of the queue to his allocated booth in an internet café, is described somewhat ponderously; he deciphers first the username, then the password, both of which indicate private, shared references from their teenage years. As the computer prepares to open the message, Coben’s prose flickers with a rare simile — ‘My heart felt like a bird banging against my rib cage’ (Coben 2001, p. 141) — but the significance of the impending miracle is attenuated.

The corresponding episode in the film adaptation achieves drama and suspense by contrasting blurring movement and concentrated stillness. The cracking of the code is a revelatory flash. It is night-time, and Beck is sitting hunched on a public bench, his bearded collie dog — the film is scrupulously loyal to the novel regarding the breed of dog — close at hand. His sudden exclamation (‘Quel con’, or ‘What an idiot’) announces the moment when he realises that the previously enigmatic username and password, ‘Concert’ and ‘Olympia’, simply refer to a U2 concert at the Paris Olympia that he and his wife attended in 1994. As the twinkling chords of U2’s classic song With or Without You build, Beck hooks the dog to its lead and runs full tilt to the café. In filming this man-running-with-dog sequence the director Guillaume Canet, taking inspiration from his favourite film-maker Martin Scorcese, uses dual travelling shots, giving the impression that, while the man and dog are running from right to left, the buildings behind them are moving in the opposite direction. However, by the time Beck is seated at the terminal, the spectator’s attention is focussed on circles: the beseeching eyes of the dog tethered below: the eyes of Beck; and the whirling circle of the search engine on the screen. Seconds before the message appears, the U2 song reaches its delayed bridge and the revelatory lyric, ‘And she gives herself away…’

This example supports the contention of specialists like Stam and Hutcheon who argue that adaptation is, fundamentally, a creative process. Moreover, the foregrounding of a comparison in which the film delivers essentially the same message as the novel but in a sharper and more sense-oriented fashion also counters the ‘iconophobia’ (Stam 2000,  p. 58) of those whose instinct is always to prize the original literary text over the film adaptation. We are left with an excellent, original novel on the one hand and a sparkling film on the other — one that Michael Caine placed in his top ten of all time — yet we have a fuzzy understanding of the relationship between the two. The argument over cultural hierarchies may be otiose but the search for answers once again takes us into the world of literature, in search of the factor that caused everything to fall into place for Harlan Coben. This moment may have occurred during the year 2000 when he abandoned his series of detective novels starring his alter ego Myron Bolitar and began work on a thriller inspired by a corny, romantic film. Tell No One was published in 2001 and since then there have been a further twelve standalone thrillers, generally tinged with romance or family melodrama.

Nothing spectacular, in a literary sense, leaps out at the reader, yet these Coben thrillers are instantly identifiable. The style is lodged in a conversational vernacular, the narratives flow as rivers of indirect speech and the characters, who are ordinary, with familiar concerns, embody aspirational, liberal values. Coben delivers affluent Eastern Board American suburbia on shiny plates of novels, a world which, we might reassure ourselves, is very different from ours, and yet is curiously all around us, in the dilemmas and issues foregrounded on Oprah’s talk shows and in the endlessly repeated episodes of the comedy series Friends, which has been exported across the globe and is still watched by millions. Using the format of the crime thriller, Coben deals in contemporary living. His novels expose the insecurities and anxieties that dominate everyday existence.

Each one develops from a narrative kernel, or conundrum. In Hold Tight (2008), a troubled teenage son, whose life has been clouded by the suicide of a friend, absconds. A large part of the text is narrated from the perspective of his middle-class, professional parents, especially father Mike, as the search for the errant son not only takes them to alien environments, notably the Bronx by night, but reveals hidden secrets and other dimensions to their own comfortable, uptown world. In Six Years (2013) college lecturer Jake is sprung from the ‘snow-globe of liberal-arts academia’ (p. 328) when he attends the funeral of the man whom Natalie, the love of his life, had married. At the funeral there is no sign of Natalie. Coben’s readers accompany these ordinary characters — Jake, Mike and David Beck (from Tell No One) — as their searches for the dead and the disappeared draw them into unsettling, parallel worlds. The most tangible of these, in Hold Tight, is a ghetto, differentiated by socio-economic conditions, and in Tell No One Beck is sucked into a maelstrom generated by the connections between criminal underworlds and the super-rich. More profoundly, in Six Years, when Jake leaves his campus, he is confronted with ontological uncertainties. On a trip to Vermont, where his romance with Natalie blossomed six years ago, he is informed that the Creative Recharge artistic retreat has closed down, or may never have existed, and people in the bookstore café whom he remembers seem to have forgotten him. As Jake grapples with this apparent impermanence of place and warping of time, he clings to a terse electronic message (‘You made a promise’), ostensibly from Natalie, a digital Ariadne’s thread running through the narrative upon which hang the identity of one character and the sanity of the other.

Beck (in Tell No One) and Jake (in Six Years) are fixated with electronic communication. The more rooted characters in Hold Tight exist in a world saturated with digital technologies. Mike and Tia have installed spyware on their son’s computer; the GPS signal on the latter’s mobile phone allows his father to track his movements. Notification that the local teenagers may have penetrated an alien, sinister world occurs when bereaved mother Betsy clicks through the photographs on the MySpace memorial site dedicated to her son. Digitalism is thus integrated into Coben’s plot constructions. It has become a crucial feature of his creative writing, the flourish to his literary signature, and it is important in three respects. Firstly, he creates numerous digital portals in his novels to boost what would otherwise be plodding plot development. Secondly, digital interactions are presented in counterpoint to the increasingly desperate need on the part of his main characters for meaningful human contact; as we read at the climax to Six Years, Coben is not shy of expressing the euphoria of impossible reunions.[7] And thirdly, this omniscient digitalism constantly alerts Coben’s readership to the vast, still mostly untapped, potential of new media to transform our understanding of what it means to be human.

Coben has established himself as a literary engineer, driven by Jenkins’s ‘core aesthetic impulse’ (cited in Parody 2011, p. 214) to build and extend a fictional world which, with the publication of each new novel, is instantly recognisable. However, it is an edifice without metaphysical foundations. His readers simply travel through the novels alongside his narrator-characters, sharing their perceptions and emotions. They live in a post-ontological world, what Jacques Derrida terms a hantologie,[8] in which the subject leads a haunted existence, characterised by loss. The everyday of the present is infused with the past, in the form of memories and regrets, such that it is impossible to apprehend life other than through the prism of past experience, and the vector of this new stage of the human condition is the phenomenon of digital technologies.

Colin Davis points out that the prevalence of the undead (ghosts, zombies, vampires) in popular culture confounds the history of western thought; the ascendancy of rationalism in the seventeenth-century and of logical positivism in the nineteenth, combined with advances in science and especially the impact of Darwin, ought to have banished all forms of superstition to the realms of the pre-modern (2007). Yet, faced with the dominance of the natural sciences, but also with the horrors of industrial warfare and the death camps, philosophical thinking has turned inwards. Influential European thinkers such as Levinas, Ricœur and Arendt speak of us as subjects haunted by those we have lost: family members, friends and the mass of innocents slaughtered through industrial warfare and genocide. Moreover, Davis argues, in a world where dead people can appear on screens as living beings we can no longer easily extricate ourselves from the world of spirits (Davis 2007, p. 20).

Orpheus stole his fateful glance and condemned Eurydice to the Underworld, but Coben ultimately wants to reward the loyalty (and romantic inclinations) of his readers, so in Tell No One David Beck battles on until, finally, his wife returns. Yet at the same time Coben seems fascinated with the idea that digital technologies inscribe new temporalities. At issue is our mortality, and especially the death of a loved one who leaves traces, who appears to inhabit a medial afterlife. Although Coben’s stories cherish human interaction, they also acknowledge the scope of the virtual. Indeed, there are good reasons for not seeing real and virtual human contact as incompatible. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku argues that recent breakthroughs in research on the brain may open the door to the possibility of communicating with the dead. Just as geneticists have succeeded in mapping the genome, neurologists may soon be able to map the ‘connectome’, which would be the complete circuitry of an individual human brain, including thoughts, memories and emotions. In short, an integral and unique personality (2014). Kaku envisages the creation of ‘libraries of souls’ where these ‘connectome’ discs would be stored and made available for two-way consultations. Then we would be able to talk with our ancestors.


Nesbø and Coben possess distinctive literary signatures and have enjoyed huge success in the crowded market of international crime fiction. Nesbø’s lyricism is endowed with a literary portability, but in a later novel like Police it is burdened with the author’s status as the figure de proue of the Nordic noir. The author’s face peering moodily from the inside cover travels around the globe, just as the heads carved on the prows of the Viking longboats did centuries ago. This type of ‘overdesign’ is absent from Coben’s understated novels. Though imbued with the values of American liberalism, these humble thrillers sketch a post-ontological world. Coben succeeds because his ideas for plots are generated from the immutable aspect of the human condition in the twenty-first-century: our profound engagement with digital technologies that both liberates and enslaves us. It is an aesthetic dimension to his writing that transcends cultural differences and speaks (potentially) to a truly global readership.



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[1] Margaret Cohen, cited in Moretti 2013, p. 67.

[2] Through blending the narrative of detection into digressive scenarios, Gaboriau is credited with having founded a new literary genre, ‘le roman judiciaire’ or ‘legal novel’. For a detailed history of nineteenth-century French crime fiction, see Lavergne (2009).

[3] Distant Reading is a collection of Moretti’s landmark essays produced over a fifteen-year period. The rudiments of his ideas on ‘World Literature’, where he argues the case for abandoning the close reading of texts, are expressed in ‘Conjectures on World Literature’ (Moretti 2013, p. 43-62). To suppose that any one individual could claim expertise generated from close textual readings over such a vast, diverse field as ‘World Literature’ would be manifestly absurd, but it is, Moretti surmises, sensible to attend to units that are ‘much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes — or genres and systems’ (Moretti 2013, p. 48-49). Contrary to Moretti, David Damrosch holds that a work may be defined as ‘World Literature’ when, in translation, its aesthetic value is enhanced rather than diminished. Whereas Moretti conceives of ‘World Literature’ as a type of superstructure, for Damrosch it is enacted through reading. Still, however it may be conceived, ‘World Literature’ is fertile, interdisciplinary territory, which has attracted some excellent scholarship. For a cogent synthesis of the more significant strands, see Cheah (2014). For my own part, I believe that literature comes into being through the act of reading and my interest is in the nature of the reader’s engagement with the work, and specifically the pleasure it brings. So, however fascinating Moretti’s contribution may be, this piece will in due course revert to the fruits of a critical interaction with literary narrative.

[4] Bourdieu argues that individuals possess varying degrees of economic, cultural and social capital, which effectively define who they are. Family background and education tend to be pivotal in terms of the accumulation of capital, though this is not an immovable feast; it is (at least theoretically) possible to gain capital later in life through playing different roles professionally or by being involved in different social situations. Still, the fieldwork underpinning La Distinction, which was first published in French in 1979, was carried out over a period from 1963 to 1968, since when access to cultural capital, for example, has been substantially widened.

[5] The weight of this dilemma has impressed itself on other commentators: ‘(…) if Nordic Noir is to be understood as a multi-valenced niche with global appeal that includes tourism marketing as much as literary value, then the novels can be seen as anticipating, perhaps producing, this dichotomy as they themselves extend, from Oslo’s ports, airports, politics, histories and trade routes, throughout a globalized and networked international crime scene’ (Pratt 2016, p. 90-91).

[6] In an article on the adaptation of Tell No One, Cécile Renaud analyses the trailers rather than the process of film adaptation, showing how these promotional features differed in the ways that they attempted to meet perceived cultural expectations of the two linguistic communities (Renaud 2012, p. 151–162).

[7] ‘…and the world exploded in a thousand different ways. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, this simple act of looking into the blue eyes of the woman I loved, and even now, even with a gun to my head, I felt oddly grateful. If he pulled the trigger, so be it. I had, in this single moment, been more alive than any time in the previous six years’ (Coben 2013, p. 347).

[8] This neologism is a verbal concatenation in French, which conjoins the verb ‘hanter’ — meaning ‘to haunt’ — and the noun ‘ontologie’ — meaning ‘ontology’. The English translation, hauntology, is less satisfactory, as it is less homophonic of ‘ontology’ (Derrida 1994, p. 10).


David Platten is Professor of Modern French Studies at the University of Leeds. He is the author of The Pleasures of Crime: Reading Modern French Crime Fiction (2011) and has produced books on, and studies of, a wide range of modern French writers, including Michel Tournier, Philippe Djian, Jorge Semprun and Jules Verne. He has also written chapters and articles on nordic noir, the literary thriller, popular cinema in France and the interface between sport and culture, notably in relation to the Tour de France and Zinedine Zidane. He is currently engaged with a number of ventures, including research on translational fictions in the UK, the contemporary bande dessinée in France, and the cultural aftermath of true crime.


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 1 2017
Editors: Christiana Gregoriou, David Platten, Gigliola Sulis