It’s impossible to ignore. The host of Scandinavian crime writers are laying siege to the bestseller lists – but what are the factors behind this all-conquering armada?
The study of this phenomenon makes for some fascinating conclusions, relating as much to the insights into Scandinavian society provided by this fiction as much as to any intrinsic literary merit (and regarding the latter, it is undoubtedly true that Nordic crime fiction carries a more respectable cachet – justifiably or otherwise – than similar genre fiction produced in Britain or the US).
Novelty and perceived ‘quality’ are both factors in the astonishing success in Britain of the lengthy, slow-burning Danish TV series The Killing, which refracted and reinvented police procedural clichés through an intriguing Danish prism. The actress Sofie Gråbøl, as the tenacious, unsmiling copper Sarah Lund with a dysfunctional personal life (in an unvarying black-and-white Faeroe Island jumper) is now a cult figure, and has even generated leader columns in The Times. Søren Sveistrup may have written his magnum opus for television, but he is unquestionably part of the Nordic literary juggernaut.
Two writers – a crime-writing team – might be said to have started it all. It is a cause for real celebration that readers (other than Scandinavians) can now read the complete works (in English) of the duo of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The critical stock of Sjöwall/Wahlöö could not be higher, with most fellow crime writing practitioners rating them as the very best exponents of the police procedural.
So if you haven't familiarised yourself yet with the Martin Beck series, of which The Laughing Policeman (1968) is the best known, you should; Beck is the ultimate Scandinavian copper, and the setting is (to British eyes) strikingly unfamiliar. And if you prefer to ignore the subtle Marxist perspective of the books, it is easy to do so.
The different kinds of snow
Two decades or so later, Peter Høeg’s kick-started the modern invasion – without trying to do so. The atmospheric literary crime novel that almost single-handedly inaugurated – without trying to – the current Scandinavian wave. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow mesmerises with its evocative use of Copenhagen locales and weather, so significant for the troubled, intuitive heroine. Most of all, it’s the poetic quality of the novel that haunts the reader.
The ‘V’ in ‘Wallander’
The real momentum, however, began with Henning Mankell. Currently the subject of two TV series (one British, one Swedish), Henning Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander (something of an alter ego for the similarly laconic Mankell) is one of the great creations of modern crime fiction: overweight, diabetes-ridden and with all the problems of modern society leaving scars on his soul. Firewall is one of the writer’s unvarnished portraits of modern life, in which society and all its institutions, not least the family, are put under the microscope. Mankell’s long-term protagonist finds himself propelled into a new area of crime: cyberspace. Several deaths have occurred: the victims include the user of a cash dispenser, and a taxi driver murdered by two young girls. The country is plunged into a blackout by an electricity failure, and a grim find is made at a power station.
From beyond the grave
The really big hitter, however, is no longer with us. Stieg Larsson is the ultimate posthumous phenomenon. His anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander is a million miles away from the alcoholic coppers with messy private lives who crowd most current fare. She is a damaged, resentful young girl, using her goth makeup, tattoos and piercings to conceal -- and barely, at that -- her sociopathic tendencies. But the appearance is deceptive -- she has a laserlike intelligence and an ability to assess the depths of the human psyche.
Stieg Larsson pairs her with a journalist who has fallen from grace and is redeeming himself by investigating a string of grisly killings from four decades ago. But his surly computer hacker assistant turns out to be more than his equal when the duo takes on the darker tributaries of the influential Vanger family, while she exacts revenge on a corrupt authority figure who has abused her. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Men Who Hate Women in its native Sweden) is an exuberant, incendiary piece of fiction that defies category -- it's a shame that its author was never able to witness its success.
The next Stieg Larsson
Who next? Is Jo Nesbø really ‘the next Stieg Larsson’ as it proclaims on the jackets? Perhaps not, but he’s certainly the breakthrough Nordic crime writer post-Larsson, and such Jo Nesbø books as The Devil’s Star (2003) and his massive 2007 novel The Snowman are more quirky and individual than those of most of his Scandinavian colleagues – not least thanks to Nesbø’s wonderfully dyspeptic detective, Harry Hole (pronounced ‘Hurler’). The Redbreast, one of the writer’s most riveting novels, might be said to have predicted the recent neo-Nazi killings in Norway – and the book’s scarifying vision of Nordic fascism is as powerful as its emotional force and humour.
Tip of the Iceberg
Who haven’t I mentioned? There is a host of talent still to explore, but one could name just ten more Scandinavian authors: Arnaldur Indriđason, Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, Håkan Nesser, Anne Holt, Johan Theorin, Karin Fossum, Gunnar Staalesen, the duo of Roslund and Hellström and Camilla Läckberg. The Nordic invasion continues with these talented writers (and many more). It’s an admirable situation, for which readers of the most accomplished crime fiction – from any country -- can be infinitely grateful.
Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction is published on 20 January by Palgrave Macmillan.