Nordic thrills

Layers of history and culture and a tradition of social criticism add depth and literary heft to Nordic noir, a genre that is a happy hunting ground for those looking for more in crime fiction than just a crime and a bunch of suspects.

Published : Feb 17, 2016 12:30 IST

Maj Sjowall (above) and Per Wahloo wrote a series of 10 novels featuring a police detective called Inspector Martin Beck. Each book was a Marxist critique of Swedish society.

Maj Sjowall (above) and Per Wahloo wrote a series of 10 novels featuring a police detective called Inspector Martin Beck. Each book was a Marxist critique of Swedish society.

THERE is something decidedly different about Nordic, or Scandinavian, noir as it is called. Perhaps it has to do with its evolution in the 1960s in Sweden as a disguised commentary on the failure of Sweden’s much-admired social welfare state. The people behind this were a real-life couple: Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. As leftist intellectuals, they were dismayed by the realisation that on its march to progress, Sweden had left its working classes behind and was on its way to becoming a cold, capitalist state, betraying the ideals it was founded upon. Realising that political writing would not garner a wide audience, they borrowed the social realist tradition of the 19th century novel to write crime fiction with an ideological agenda. They wrote a series of 10 novels featuring a police detective called Inspector Martin Beck. Each book was a Marxist critique of Swedish society and was subtitled “The story of a crime”.

But the real crime in these novels went beyond the obvious one depicted in the novel: it was the neglect of the working classes by the Swedish government and society.

And right up to Stieg Larsson, this tradition of social criticism has continued to inform Nordic noir even though Larsson reinvented the genre in many ways but most remarkably in the way he conceived his heroine, Lisbeth Salander, the nemesis of misogynistic men.

Before Wahloo and Maj Sjowall began writing their stories, the Swedish intellectual establishment did not take crime fiction seriously. It was seen as a vulgar bourgeois pastime. This perhaps explains why many Nordic crime writers before the 1960s chose to write using pseudonyms. But Wahloo and Maj Sjowall made writing (and reading) crime fiction respectable, as John-Henri Holmberg, a writer and the editor of the Swedish crime anthology A Darker Shade (2013) attests. Their works won international acclaim but mostly within Europe. Thus began the trend in Nordic countries of writing crime fiction with a social message.

The next most important milestone in Nordic noir came in the 1990s with the publication in 1992 of Smilla’s Sense of Snow by the Danish writer Peter Hoeg. Written in a language that evoked the cadences of poetry, it soon became an international bestseller and the world began to take notice.

A decade later, Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) created publishing history. Sadly, Larsson never got to enjoy the phenomenal success of his books. He died in 2004 of a heart attack, the result of an unhealthy lifestyle. It was also during the 1990s that Henning Mankell started writing his Kurt Wallander novels, which were adapted for television in Sweden and Britain (by the BBC). Many such TV series like The Bridge and The Killing proved incredibly popular, testifying to an increasing interest in crime stories originating from the frigid and barren landscapes of northern Europe.

Ironically, there is not much crime in the Nordic countries compared with other countries. The isolation of small towns, the desolate, frozen expanses of land and sea, the scanty population (Iceland has a population of only 300,000 people), all contribute to the atmospheric quality of these novels. But Liza Marklund, author of the Annika Bengstom novels, says that if one lived in places such as Africa or South America, where violence and bloodshed are part of everyday life, it would be difficult to read or write about crime. She speaks of how the 2003 assassination of Anna Lindh, the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, so traumatised her that she could not write for three years.

But it is not as if there is no crime either. One of the most shocking crimes of the 20th century happened in 1986 when Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was assassinated in the heart of Stockholm as he returned home from a visit to a theatre. The murder, still unsolved, is like a festering wound in the Scandinavian psyche. Perhaps that is why many Nordic noir writers such as Mankell and Liza Marklund keep agonising over the “vulnerability of society” in their novels. If the head of a country could be killed in public, as people went about their daily business, then no one was safe. With Palme’s assassination, there was a sense of pervasive loss—of innocence, of a way of life even, among the Nordic nations. Something had changed, irrevocably. It was a crime that created ripples throughout the Nordic countries, which have strong cultural, political, historical, economic and linguistic bonds.

Social tensions So when did the octopus of crime start spreading its tentacles to the Nordic region? Perhaps it began in the early 1970s when oil brought new-found wealth to Norway after an American company discovered an oilfield in the North Sea off the country’s coast. This created a new affluent class with its attendant problems. It was not long before international gangs and drug syndicates followed. Globalisation and immigration have left their mark on these previously isolated countries as they struggle to come to terms with the rapid changes overtaking their hitherto peaceful, stable societies. The rise of neo-Nazism in Sweden and Norway attests to the social tensions that are coming to a boil. The gruesome massacre of 77 people by the right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011, in Norway, gives a hint of the problems simmering behind the facade of a liberal, progressive and democratic country.

Larsson was a vocal opponent of neo-Nazism in Sweden. He was a co-founder of the non-profit Expo foundation, which monitors right-wing extremist and racist elements in society. Many Swedish writers of noir have examined Sweden’s enigmatic role in the Second World War. Despite being a “neutral” country, Sweden allowed the Germans to use its railway network to subjugate Denmark and Norway. Camilla Lackberg’s novels The Hidden Child (2007) and Buried Angels (2011) and Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are just three of the works that deal with these themes. In fact, it is these layers of history and culture that add depth and literary heft to Nordic noir. It also helps that there are many good English translators who have made these works accessible to the English-speaking world.

Women to the fore Another remarkable feature of Nordic noir is its amazing wealth of female practitioners. Karin Fossum, the queen of Norwegian crime fiction, who has been compared to Ruth Rendell, is my personal favourite. Her novels are minimalistic. A few characters, a small-town setting, a crime that tears apart a small community where everyone knows each other—with these staple ingredients, she weaves a story of such psychological depth and tragic intensity that it haunts one for days afterwards. In many of her novels such as Don’t Look Back (1996), The Indian Bride (2000) and Black Seconds (2002), she describes how crime unravels a community in slow but insidious ways and changes people forever. There is no greater villain in her works than the circumstances that can make an ordinary person commit the most brutal of crimes.

Women writers such as Liza Marklund and Camilla Lackberg feature female protagonists who have to juggle motherhood and career, and such novels are also dubbed “femicrimi” because they deal with issues that are unique to women. A common theme in many of these novels is domestic violence, which is rather surprising considering that women in these countries enjoy a good deal of freedom and equality. Strangely, the Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when translated means men who hate women. Perhaps, there is a lot going on under the surface that the outside world does not know about. Annika Bengstom, the reporter sleuth in Liza Marklund’s novels, kills an abusive boyfriend as does Anna, the sister of Erika Falck, the writer sleuth of Camilla Lackberg’s novels. The only book where I came across a woman abusing her husband was Asa Larsson’s The Second Deadly Sin (2011). These writers write well-researched novels that tell us a lot about their countries’ past and the present. Liza Marklund herself was a reporter.

Nordic noir writers who began writing in the 1990s, such as Mankell, Hakan Nesser and Stieg Larsson, came of age during the 1960s and were strongly influenced by the anti-Vietnam movement. Their leftist indoctrination led them into professions such as writing, teaching, journalism, law and social welfare that allowed them to influence public opinion. The Norwegian Anne Holt was a lawyer who later became a Minister of Justice, while Karin Fossum was a poet who worked in health and education. Nordic noir may have been initially influenced by American noir, especially the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Micky Spillane and Ed McBain, but today it has carved out a distinctive identity for itself. Inspector Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander have become the modern-day templates for police detectives who are mostly lonely men, struggling to cope with bad habits such as smoking or alcoholism or health conditions such as diabetes and eczema. They belong to dysfunctional families with a history of divorce and even drug-addled children. The Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole is an opium addict. They are embattled men who are often overcome by existential angst because of the horrors they have seen. Nesser’s Van Veeteren even gives up policing to become an antiquarian bookseller. And not all of the crime solvers are policemen. Lawyers, writers, reporters and scientists solve crimes in many of these works. The Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s protagonist, Thora Gudmundsdottir, is a lawyer, while Camilla Lackberg’s heroine is a writer, Erica Falck, married to a policeman. Asa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson is a lawyer, while Hoeg’s Smilla Jasperson is a glaciologist.

Postcolonialism, eco crimes, the supernatural, political conspiracies, financial corruption, right-wing extremism, xenophobia, domestic violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, there is no dearth of themes in Nordic noir. If Smilla’s Sense of Snow touches on Denmark’s postcolonial history, Kerstin Eckman’s Blackwater (1993) deals with eco crime—the ugly side of industrialisation, which transforms pristine nature into savagely ravaged landscapes. In Guilt (2010), Jussi Adler-Olsen writes about compulsory eugenics, usually associated with the Nazis. It is shocking to realise that Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden passed eugenics laws in the 1930s, which remained on the statute books until the mid-1970s. Until a Stockholm newspaper, Dagens Nyheter , exposed this dark chapter in Scandinavian history in 1997, many Nordic citizens themselves were not aware of this grisly past. Stieg Larsson focusses on corruption and conspiracies within politics and the bureaucracy, and the power of technology to expose hidden networks of power.

Some of these themes have a resonance far beyond the Nordic region. For instance, in Camilla Lackberg’s Buried Angels , the politician John Holm and his party, Friends of Sweden, are eerily reminiscent of Hindu extremists in India who preach hate and bigotry. Similarly, the senseless violence and horrific death that awaits Poona Bai at the hands of a total stranger in Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride brings to mind the fate of the young woman known as Nirbhaya, who was gang-raped in Delhi in 2012.

Stylistically and thematically, Nordic noir writers differ from each other. While Karin Fossum’s novels are like psychological studies of people undergoing a traumatic event in their lives, Nesbo’s and Larsson’s novels are very action-oriented “and more Yankee than Scandi”. Camilla Lackberg’s novels dwell a lot on the relationships between the characters, which can be a bit tiresome for lovers of hard-boiled crime fiction, but Liza Marklund and Asa Larsson bust gender stereotypes in the way they write. Whether it is politics, economics, or bear hunting, they definitely know what they are writing about. According to Marilyn Stasio, women have written some of the most politically acute Scandi crime novels. It is hardly surprising that many of these women writers have won several awards for their works. Sometimes, novels by women writers such as Camilla Lackberg and Liza Marklund have parallel narratives unfolding simultaneously, one in the past and one in the present, with the former framing the latter to show how history often repeats itself —with tragic consequences. The Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason, too, uses this narrative device in his novel Silence of the Grave (2001).

With so many writers in this category, lovers of Nordic noir are spoilt for choice. Some feel that the success of Nordic noir is partly due to cultural exoticism. It opens a window to a very different world, one that seems tailor-made for noir where the bleakness of the landscape often becomes a metaphor for the bleakness in the minds of the people who inhabit it. Inclement weather is just one of the things that one has to do battle against and overcome. Nordic noir is a happy hunting ground for those inclined to look for more in crime fiction than just a crime and a bunch of suspects. But be warned, you could get addicted to it!

Vasantha K. Krishnaraj is a writer based in Chennai.

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