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Interview: March 22, 2012

In Helene Tursten’s newest Inspector Irene Huss novel, NIGHT ROUNDS, Irene investigates when a hospital is hit by a blackout, one nurse is found dead, and another vanishes. In this interview, conducted by’s Joe Hartlaub, Tursten discusses her inspiration to tell the story, partially drawn from her own experience as a nurse and dentist. She also shares some of her favorite Swedish crime writers, describes her writing routine, and gives a glimpse into what she’s working on now. NIGHT ROUNDS is the fourth title in your Inspector Irene Huss series to be published in the United States. Huss is with the Violent Crimes Unit of Göteborg, Sweden; she and the team are called upon to investigate the murder of a nurse in Lowander Hospital, a once-prestigious private facility that is reputed to be haunted. Indeed, the only witness on the evening of the murder is sure that she saw the ghost in question --- a nurse, formerly employed by the hospital, who committed suicide there --- at the time the murder was committed. The hospital, which is in decline and on the verge of closing, provides a focal point for the book and is a somber and foreboding presence throughout. What drew you to tell this story?

Helene Tursten: I am a registered nurse, and worked at different hospitals for three years before I went back to university to become a dentist. I worked as a dentist for nearly 10 years, so I know a lot about hospitals and did not have to do much research on them. But I also wanted to show what happened to some of the patients during the time when almost every mental hospital in Sweden was closed down from 1993-1995. Much of this was ignored by society, and I know that the same thing has happened in other countries. Today, we have so many mentally ill people out in the streets, and they are suffering a lot. The story is also about evil people driven by greed and jealousy. I thought that the story had a lot of interesting components, so I decided to tell it.

BRC: Irene Huss is an interesting character in that, unlike many of the protagonists we see in Nordic noir novels, she is relatively uncomplicated and undamaged. Her worst habit appears to be an addiction to coffee; otherwise, she seems to be levelheaded and steady, providing a stabilizing force to her police unit as well as to her family, particularly her teenage daughters. She is, in her purest form, the “good” in the “good vs. evil” equation. Did you consciously create a character who is so basically good and uncomplicated, who can nonetheless face down and bring to justice such cold-blooded and violent adversaries? Or did Huss evolve from a different point when you first conceived her?

HT: My husband is an ex-cop (he’s been a dentist for 28 years now), and thanks to him, I got to know a lot of policemen and also some policewomen. What struck me was that the policewomen were so ordinary; they were like all the other women I know. They had families and ordinary lives. But not in literature. Ordinary policewomen were rare, and when they turned up, they were like the men: lonely, no family but often divorced, problems with alcohol and depression, and so on. I wanted to create a normal woman who is a very good cop, has a normal life and normal relations. That is what makes Irene Huss so unusual in literature.

BRC: You and Inspector Huss are both former Jiu-Jitsu champions. What other characteristics do you share? And did you model Huss after anyone besides yourself?

HT: Actually, I am not a former Jiu-Jitsu champion; my husband is. And Irene and I do not share much. She is devoted to her job and her family, spends a lot of time in the dojo and doing other types of training. She is in good shape, and that is what takes most of her time. She is not intellectual at all. She is similar to most cops I have met.

I am interested in literature, film, theater, traveling, strolling in nature and a lot of other things. If Irene and I should ever meet, I do not think that we would be best friends. We would like and respect each other, I think, but not have a lot in common.

BRC: I found Huss to be an extremely interesting character, but I confess that I am equally intrigued by two members of the supporting cast --- Superintendent Sven Andersson and Hannu Rauhala. I found Superintendent Andersson to be an extremely complex character, one who by turns provides occasional if unintentional comic relief, then sometimes seems clueless as to the office politics of his team, yet at other times seems particularly savvy and possessed of a keen if intermittent insight. How did you go about creating Andersson? And how does he develop --- or deteriorate --- over the course of the series?

HT: Sven Andersson is getting old. He has worked his way up from the street. He has been a good cop and has a lot of experience. But he is not the perfect boss, because he is too far behind, too old fashioned, and afraid of “problems” among people in his team. He prefers not to notice; but he tries his very best, and deep inside he has a good heart.

BRC: Inspector Hannu Rauhala is the other supporting character with whom I was especially intrigued. In NIGHT ROUNDS, he is “on loan” to the Violent Crimes Unit from General Investigations. Rauhala seems to be “connected”; he has ways of obtaining information that no one else can get, and is a master of what we might call “working outside the box,” putting together apparently unconnected bits of information and reaching a conclusion. Does Rauhala eventually join the team full time? And have you considered a novel or a series built around him, or perhaps another member of the Violent Crimes Unit?

HT: I Like Hannu Rauhala, too. And yes, he joins the team. Today, there are 12 TV-films, 90 minutes each, with this team, and the producers took away Hannu! They said that it would be too many characters in the films. I was not amused. Last week I released the 10th Irene Huss novel in Sweden; she is still the heroine, and Hannu is still there.

BRC: Your professional background is as a dentist and a nurse. What prompted you to turn to writing as a vocation?

HT: My dental career was curtailed by rheumatic illness. I had to do something else, and it turned out to be writing.  

BRC: What authors have influenced your work? Particularly, what American and Swedish writers would you count among your primary influences?

HT: Arthur Conan Doyle, P.D. James, Henning Mankell, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin. I am aware that there are no American writers among those who are my primary influences, but at least they are British!

But I do read some American authors, like Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, Sara Paretsky and Janet Evanovich (my daughter’s favorite).

BRC: How do you plan your day for writing? Do you attempt to follow a specific schedule? If so, has that schedule changed over the years?

HT: I am an early bird! I rise at 6:30, then I start working around 9:00 and work for three hours. I take a long break, and then I work for about two more hours. I do follow this schedule every day that I am at home, except for the days around Christmas and New Year’s. This has not changed over the years.

BRC: Do you have any plans to tour or otherwise visit the United States in support of the publication of NIGHT ROUNDS?

HT: Yes. I start in New York to visit my publishing house, Soho Press, and do some signing. Then I am going to Left Coast Crime in Sacramento. That will be great fun; I know some of the people there.

BRC: Are there any Nordic noir authors or books you have read in the past six months that you would like to recommend to our readers?

HT: Anne Holt’s FLIMMER (“flicker” in English). Anne Holt is a very established crime writer who lives in Norway. She wrote this book together with her brother, Evan Holt, who is a cardiac specialist. Maybe I like the story because I am medically trained, but it is really interesting and exciting! 

BRC: Such books as THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW awakened American readers to Swedish and Nordic mystery and detective fiction some years ago; and, of course, Stieg Larsson’s books have brought a great deal of attention to Nordic mystery writers of late. Is there any obstacle, besides the language barrier, that has kept Nordic authors from breaking through to the American market before now?

HT: It is so far away, small countries in the northern part of Europe. Most Americans do not know the name of the Swedish capital city. They say something like “Copenhagen is the capital city of Scandinavia.” Wrong. There is no country called Scandinavia; it is the name of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland together. And by the way, Stockholm is the Swedish capital city.  

BRC: Your novels have been bestsellers and, as I noted above, have been adapted to film. Are there any goals you have set for yourself as an author that you have yet to attain?

HT: I will write as long as possible. Hopefully there will be some more books. My next book is not an Irene Huss novel; it is, of course, a crime novel, but with new characters. The next book after that will be a new Irene Huss.

BRC: How many Irene Huss books have you published in Sweden to date? Do you have a definite ending for the series, or do you plan to continue it for as long as readers want it?

HT: As I said above, I released the 10th book a week ago. I know that I will write at least two more books about Irene, but I do have some more ideas in the pipeline.