Nordic Noir: The Rise of Scandinavian Crime Fiction

Photo of Rowan Borchers
14 October 2016

Over the last decade, Scandinavian crime fiction has dominated global bestseller lists. Renowned for its simple prose, dramatic plots, and social criticism, ‘Nordic Noir’ has developed into a multi-million dollar industry. Rowan Borchers discovers how a handful of authors redefined the murder mystery for the 21st century.

Bjørvika, Oslo | © Helge Høifødt/WikiCommons

The 1975 Swedish novel The Terrorists follows detective Martin Beck’s attempts to thwart an assassination attempt on a visiting American politician. The tenth in a book series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the book discusses the Swedish state’s failure to ameliorate inequality. At the book’s close, one detective summarizes the authors’ take on social conflict: ‘putting the police in the vanguard of violence is like putting the cart before the horse’.

Sjowall and Wahloo’s avowedly Marxist approach echoes in the pages of Scandinavian crime fiction today. In the last decade, Swedish and Norwegian writers have transformed the murder mystery into a vehicle to critique contemporary Europe. The novels of Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo are primarily page-turners, but display a social conscience which was non-existent in the genre 20 years ago. Mankell, who created murder detective Kurt Wallander, describes his goal as ‘making your books be about something – and have something pertinent to say about the societies we live in’.

Mankell’s first novel, Faceless Killers, was translated into English in 1997. Detective Wallander investigates the murder of an elderly couple beaten to death in their own home. When word spreads that the pair were killed by immigrants, the country is shaken by racist violence. Mankell’s attack on nationalism and xenophobia is clear, without detracting from the gripping narrative.

Henning Mankell | © David Shankbone/WikiCommons

The book’s success stems from the author’s internationalist political perspective. Mankell’s writing combats evils he thinks are ubiquitous in western capitalism. A veteran of the Left, Mankell has funded the Norwegian Workers’ Communist Party; in 2010, he was aboard the flotillas raided by the Israel Defense Force. ‘I’m acutely conscious of the fact that the nation of Israel was also born in 1948’, he said of his birth date, ‘which means that one could say the problems of Palestine have existed as long as my own life. And I would like to feel that I will not die with these problems unresolved’. This polemical approach permeates many Scandinavian crime novels.

Yet the main appeal of Nordic Noir is the clarity of its prose. In addition to the authors’ deliberately unpretentious style, many Scandinavian languages take on a rare simplicity when translated into English. Niclas Salomonsson, agent to dozens of Swedish and Norwegian crime writers, says the reason for the Scandinavians’ success is their ‘realistic, simple and precise’ style, stripped of the excesses of English-language novelists.

The archetypal writer of such prose is Stieg Larsson, creator of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the last ten years Larsson was outsold only by Dan Brown – his Millennium trilogy was adapted into two blockbuster movies, and sold over 15 million copies in the United States alone. Throughout, his prose is understated and peppered with stark facts and statistics.

Larsson too was motivated by the flaws in Swedish society. Before writing fiction, he was an investigative journalist for ten years. An expert on the far right, Larson wrote extensively on honor killings and the links between punk and neo-fascism in Scandinavia. His sudden death aged 50 was taken by many fans as proof he was killed by his political enemies.

Nevertheless, the Millennium series’ main target was not Larsson’s far right enemies. In Sweden The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was marketed as ‘Men Who Hate Women’; the book’s horrific portrayal of misogyny and sexual violence is coupled with statistics which target gender inequality. ‘18 percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man’, concludes the first chapter.

Larsson’s unflinching portrayal of sexism is most vivid in descriptions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s eponymous hero, Lisbeth Salander. Larsson portrays the rape and subsequent revenge of Salander in a series of flashbacks, culminating in her tattooing ‘pig and racist’ on the stomach of her attacker.

Cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo | © Graham Hardy/WikiCommons

Some critics argue that the most distinctive aspect of Larsson’s work was his portrayal of sexual violence. Barry Forshaw, an expert in Scandinavian crime literature, writes: ‘It is the author’s presentation of a variety of sexual acts which is the locus classicus for any understanding of the Millennium trilogy, not least in terms of its sexually abused polymorphous heroine’. Throughout the series, Larsson reveals troubling details about Salander’s experience.

Larsson justified his work’s brutality on feminist grounds, but it led to controversy nonetheless. Many contemporaries suggested that the books’ portrayal of rape is unnecessarily graphic. Ann Cleves, the creator of the Vera Stanhope novels, has questioned, ‘if it’s being done just to entertain, or whether it really is necessary for the characters involved’. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s portrayal of gendered violence has even been condemned as a perverse marketing strategy.

Few authors dare emulate Larsson’s portrayal of sex, but dozens continue his strain of Swedish crime literature. Jo Nesbo’s books are sold with the tagline ‘The next Stieg Larsson’, a claim borne out by his remarkable sales figures. Unlike previous Scandinavian big-hitters, Nesbo isn’t wedded to the bleak beauty of Scandinavia. In one novel, the protagonist Harry Hole travels to Queensland to solve a murder, alongside a sardonic Australian sidekick.

The jet-setting lifestyle of the characters reflects Nesbo’s early life. Originally a professional footballer, a leg injury led him to begin a new life as guitarist in Di Derre, a chart-topping band in Norway through the mid-1990s. His first book, The Bat (1997) was penned pseudonymously for fear of being rejected as ‘another crap book by a rock star’. Mainstream English language success came with The Snowman, which topped bestseller lists across Europe in 2010.

Despite Nesbo’s ongoing success, many writers say the end is in sight for Nordic Noir. Ian Rankin, writer of the Inspector Rebus series, argues that ‘Scandinavian crime writers are no better than Scottish ones, they just have better PR’. For some critics, the distinctive Scandinavian combination of simplicity, social criticism, and violence is flawed; but with a Nesbo novel selling every 23 seconds, the global literary public clearly disagrees.

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