The Books Interview: Anne Holt

You and writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell have alighted on crime fiction as a way of exploring modern Scandinavian societies. Why is that?
I think that crime fiction is an especially suitable genre to do that. I always say that if you are visiting a country you have never been to before, you should buy a crime novel from the place and an interiors magazine. Those two things will tell you more about that country than any travel guide. And to learn about a society, you certainly have to know about its darker side.

You've said that your style is more "Scandinavian" than Larsson's. What did you mean by that?
Larsson had a more American way of writing. He exaggerated a lot. In my opinion, Scandinavian crime writing all the way back to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, a Swedish couple who wrote in the Sixties and Seventies, has been a social-realist genre. What Larsson did was invent a completely new way of writing. I enjoy his books very much, but I think the films are better - because they are shorter and less exaggerated.

What he has done for Scandinavian literature is fantastic and we all have to be grateful for that. However, you should also bear in mind that Mankell became a success long before Larsson - not commercially so much as critically. So Larsson also has a lot to thank Mankell for.

You have described your latest novel, 1222, as a homage to Agatha Christie. What do you admire about her books?
What I like about old-fashioned crime writing like Christie's is that the investigation is purely tactical, because these writers didn't have access to technology. Sherlock Holmes, for example, was a very deductive, very tactical kind of investigator. All the classical crime-fiction heroes solve their cases by using their little grey cells alone.

What has happened since is that actual police work has got more technical. I know this because I used to work in the police department and I still have a very strong network inside the police today, which helps me with my research. It's getting to be more and more a technical thing.

With this book, I was wondering if it's still possible to write that kind of old-fashioned story where the detective is forced to use just his or her deduction. I came up with the idea when I was snowed in at the hotel where the novel is set, between Oslo and Bergen in Norway.

What job did you do in the police?
I was a police attorney. In Norway, if you are a lawyer, you can apply for a job in the police, and you wear a uniform and are a police officer. As an attorney, you are legally in charge of an investigation, even if you don't lead it when it comes to the technical side of things.

I've drawn on that experience in my novels. A poll was taken of 2,000 Norwegian police officers this spring asking which Scandinavian crime writer they felt gives the most accurate picture of what police work is like. I won it by miles.

Which other crime writers do you enjoy reading?
I very much admire Dennis Lehane. And Raymond Chandler is impossible to get around. He is the founder of the genre. But I don't read a lot of American crime fiction, because I feel that what happens in America is, whenever someone becomes successful, they write two or three fabulous books and then get a big contract for ten new books and the quality drops off.

1222 is the eighth book in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. How do you avoid things getting stale?
I actually have three series on the go, and that is very, very good for me. If I started a book and felt "this is routine", I hope that I would stop myself, but if I didn't stop myself I hope that someone else would. I'm married to my publisher, so she would probably put her foot down!

Did you always intend the first novel featuring Hanne, Blind Goddess, to be part of a series?
I decided in the week the book was published that it would be a series because the reading public was crazy about her. In fact, I was intending one of the other figures to be a main character if I wrote on, though I wasn't planning to do that at the time.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Anne Holt's "1222" is published by Corvus (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus