Jesper Stein – Nordic Noir’s elite

Jesper Stein was born on February 28th 1965. He has accrued international recognition for his crime novel series based around the fictitious character Commissioner Axel Steen. His novels take place in Nørrebro in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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Jesper Stein is a busy man, but has managed to create an envious literary career around his equally successful career in journalism, his passion of interviewing his writing idols, and a large family. He is attending the Frankfurt book fair in October to continue promoting and raising awareness of his work and Nordic authors.

Here Jesper Stein talks to us about his journey to this point of accomplishment, how he is motivated to write and what we have to look forward to in his future works.

What first interested you with the genre of crime fiction, as opposed to pursuing a different area of writing?

I grew up on a diet of Danish poetry and Ed McBains 87th Precinct police procedurals, and that has been the basis in my literary education ever since.

When I was in my twenties I tried to write poetry, in my thirties I battled with the literary novel, and finally I found success in my efforts with the crime novel.
This has fascinated me all life: the crime novel. And I have tried to combine all my literary experiences in it; poetry, depths in the description of the city and ambiguity in the characters, plot and pace. And in a way you can say, that I have been preparing myself for the crime novel for many years, first working as a war correspondent for a couple of years, then a crime reporter for 8 years and as a literary journalist since 2005.
My newspaper has given me a free hand to pursue my interest for crime fiction and I have travelled the world to interview my idols in the cities where their novels take place: Michael Connelly and James Ellroy in LA, Ian Rankin in Edinburgh, Jo Nesbø in Oslo, Arnaldur Indridasson in Reykjavik, the Lars Kepler couple in Stockholm, Henning Mankell, John le Carré etc. And I have learned a lot from all these different jobs, which I use in my novels.

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You received the Danish Academy for Crime Debutant Prize in 2012, for your first series of 3 books based around Axel Steen. With your international success, what does it mean to be recognised in Denmark?

It means a lot to be recognized in your own country by the people who speak your language, and to some extent know the reality, and especially the city, I’m writing about.
I’ve had extremely good reviews, which means a lot, but the most important recognition is from the readers. The reader who writes or stops me in the street and tells me that reading my novels is like walking around in Nørrebro themselves and that they are crazy about Axel Steen.

It has also been extremely interesting to be published in other countries, because they have a completely different take on what I do in my novels. The Swedes finds them very politically incorrect, the Germans like them very much and find them full of social criticism – and therefore I really look forward to visit the Book fair in Frankfurt this autumn to meet foreign publishers and talk to them about the series.

How does your literary career fit around your other commitments?

It is quite tight fitting everything around each other. I’m very busy with a full time job, four children; two of them are newborn twins. However, I have a wife who wants me to follow my dreams and in the past three years I have been able to get away from home on weeklong retreats and write my novels, and that is basically the way they are made. This can be a very intense time because I can write like a madman for 16 hours a day to get the job done.

The Nordic Noir scene has really taken off in the last couple of years. What do you think intrigues people the most about these dark crime fiction Scandinavian books and dramas?

For me there really is no Nordic Noir, because the Scandinavian crime writers are as different from each other as writers from all over the world, but it is clear that our reputation for being happy countries with high welfare and equal rights for men and women etc. is a good background to write really nasty novels.

The Nordic Noir wave breaks down the illusion of ‘the Scandinavian countries are a happy safe-haven’, and in my second book “Bye Bye Blackbird” I deal with rape of women and the way the victims are treated in Denmark in a very critical way. Of course Denmark is a very peaceful country compared to many others in the world, but there is still something rotten…you know the saying.

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Tell us about your most recent book ‘Akrash’ and what you have coming up in the future.

Akrash is a dark and harsh novel about self-destruction in every sense of the word. I wanted to examine how far down you can bring your protagonist and still count on him getting the job done. And I think I did succeed in coming all the way down to the bottom with Axel in this novel, which is about love that never dies, sex, drugs and betrayal.

Inspired by thriller magicians like Simon Kernick and Michael Connelly I have tried to create a finale that lasts 200 pages and makes you tear through the pages without losing all the depths in the portrayal of the characters and their motives. The future is the future. I know nothing of it. But I will write another novel, that’s for sure.