Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Peter Høeg and Karin Fossum. These names have all come to define the face of the Nordic countries’ now iconic back catalogue of crime fiction. Many questions have been raised regarding the reasons behind both their plot devices and their eternal popularity with us on the outside the Nordic region. The relenting Nordic stereotype familiar to many of those outside the Nordic countries is one of egalitarianism spawned from welfare state ideology and democratic principles. Why then has this ostensibly idyllic landscape become the nucleus for so many of these narratives?
Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall
Sweden’s Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall set the template for almost all of the Scandinavian detective novels that have emerged in recent years. Their chief creation, a police detective called Martin Beck, found fame through a series of ten novels famed for their mantra of prophetic realism and Marxist leaning tendencies. Wahlöö and Sjöwall set out to explore the failure of Sweden’s post-WWII prosperity and the welfare state to produce the socialist utopia that was anticipated. Also present within the stories was the blurring of the personal and professional life of the main protagonist. From their Marxist perspective, the two writers painted a picture of a Swedish urban landscape that was riddled with the poverty-stricken and disenfranchised and where murder became the logical next step within a society that was fast becoming a landscape fraught with the anxieties of despondency.
The fall of Communism in the 1980s and 90s as well as the ratification of the EU led to an influx of immigration into the Nordic countries. The consequences for Scandinavia’s crime fiction saw the anxieties of this new inflow of people and the intolerance that followed played out in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels. The assassination of Sweden’s social democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 shook Sweden and Scandinavia to its core. Shot dead in the middle of Stockholm, to many Swedes this equated to the death of the state and catapulted them into a new era where Sweden had lost a sense of its seemingly natural credulity. The murder of Olof Palme to this day remains unsolved. Many believe that this is reflected in all Scandinavian crime fiction where a void has been created and the vestiges of justice have yet to be reinstated.
One of Norway’s most prominant literary exports is Jo Nesbø and his Harry Hole series. Clearly influenced by the archetypal maverick cops that resonate throughout the history of American crime fiction and drama, Hole is set in pursuit of one artisan serial killer after another, thwarted perpetually by corrupt cops and politicians. This corruption, Nesbø claims, is drawn from Norway’s transition from a poor country to one that experienced uninterrupted affluence since the American’s discovered oil there in the 1970s. Nesbø’s tapestry of fascinatingly shifty and spineless corrupt characters has filtered through from a moral vacuum that Nesbø claims wealth has bestowed on the country. Nesbø’s books also explore a more visceral and violent aesthetic and cleverly negotiate cultural influences from outside the country yet, simultaneously, remain culturally relevant to Norway.
Unlike Henning Mankell who explored the effects of outside influences on Nordic identity, Norway’s Karin Fossum sustains Henrik Ibsen’s notion of social outcasts as created by social situations. Instead, in Fossum’s novels, both killer and victim come from the same place. The killer is the Everyman and part of the ostensibly domesticated norm. Fossum is unconcerned with the direction of the plot and instead pours her efforts into making her readership feel something, for both victim and killer alike.
Peter Høeg’s 1992 novel Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow) began a revitalization of the interest in Nordic Noir. Social inequality and a female lead whose marginalization is not dissimilar to that of Larsson’s iconic creation Lisbeth Salander, Høeg’s novel examines the social injustices of Denmark through an investigative crime story. There is a great sense of place in the book, nature’s variations of snow become the key to unraveling the mystery and function as a sixth sense to the main protagonist.
Iceland’s Arnaldur Indriðason exposes his greatest fears in his exceptional book Jar City. First published in 2000, the book is strangely prophetic, documenting Indriðason terror of the surveillance society that we are currently in the throes of. The creation of a DNA database that holds the genetic material of every Icelander together with an unsettling plot device centered around harvested organs, it’s a dystopian parable that befits the post-modern age. Jar City was brought to life in 2006 in Baltasar Kormákur’s fantastic screen adaptation of the same name.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women) that was later re-titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo put Scandinavian crime fiction on the global map. A new wave of immigration set in motion a reactionary and organized far-right movement in Sweden during the 1990s. This upsurge of intolerance led revered investigative journalist Stieg Larsson to establish Expo, a magazine with the specific goal of unearthing right wing extremism, xenophobia and racism in all its forms. As a result, Larsson’s life was perpetually in jeopardy at the behest of these right-wing groups. The Millennium Trilogy sought to epitomize his portrait of Swedish society. The heroine, Lisbeth Salander, comes to symbolize the almost sociopathic product of a hegemonic society controlled by corrupt and abusive men. Ironically, Larsson died in 2004 at the age of 50, not at the hands of a right-wing conspiracy, but climbing seven flights of stairs after which he succumbed to a heart attack.
Perhaps there lies a paradox in the fact that, without its aspirational and prosperous image to us on the outside, the impact of Scandinavia’s crime fiction may not have been so profoundly felt. Perhaps Nordic fiction needs this sharp juxtaposition to exert the strong hold it currently has on the world.
A common theme all of these books share is a sense of failure in the infrastructure of Nordic societies and how this failure impacts on the very identities of its people. Many believe that this fanaticism with Nordic Noir is simply a passing phase that will eventually dwindle. What the future holds for this genre of literature remains uncertain, however, the terrorist attacks in Oslo and on Utøya in 2011 have re-kindled debates concerning the presence of political extremism that were so intrinsic to Larsson’s way of thinking. It has opened up old wounds regarding a hidden volatility in Nordic societies and perhaps, most importantly, has dramatically confirmed the notion of the threat from within. Maybe there is still a place for these dark and multifaceted stories in this unpredictable and ever changing world.