Barry Forshaw: How to Write a Nordic Thriller

Barry Forshaw: How to Write a Nordic Thriller

Having written extensively on crime fiction, including books dedicated to Nordic Noir and Brit Noir, and having served as Vice Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, Barry Forshaw always intrigues us with his specialist and well-studied view on crime. We can’t wait to hear his thoughts during his appearances at Harrogate, but until then he’s shared his thoughts on what it takes to write a successful Nordic Noir novel. And if you still have some catching up to do with the Nordic Noir genre, Barry has also shared six titles that he feels are key; a perfect starting point for anyone new to the genre.

1. Pick your Scandinavian country

Readers of those massively-selling Scandinavian crime thrillers know their Norwegian fjords from their Stockholm suburbs; so make sure you evoke your locale with maximum atmosphere, be it the endless forests and big skies of Sweden, Finland’s lakes, humming with mosquitoes, Iceland’s volcanic ash, Denmark’s agricultural landscapes or Norway’s dramatic mountains.

2. Depict a damaged detective

Whether you go for a sociopathic, damaged heroine who cannot relate to people (as with Stieg Larsson’s facially-pierced computer hacker/avenger Lisbeth Salander) or an alienated, alcoholic detective (like Jo Nesbø’s dyspeptic Harry Hole), make sure they have all the requisite characteristics: bloody-minded attitude to authority, maverick recklessness (Sarah Lund in The Killing), difficulties in sustaining relationships with their parents and children (all present and correct in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander).

3. Cast a cold eye on society

Make sure your cynical protagonist is always up against massive levels of corruption that extend into the upper echelons of society. Politicians and the security services are never to be trusted in Scandinavian crime fiction, and while leather-jacketed thugs with number one haircuts usually do the dirty work, the serious villains are those wearing smart suits in boardrooms, with the police in their pockets.

4. Focus on serious issues

The social democratic ideal of the Scandinavian countries that Brits fondly envied? In serious trouble – as we learn from the crime fiction. Painless assimilation of immigrants? No, pain aplenty – an incendiary area. Well, surely there are the sexual freedoms? Sorry – no more liberal than Britain, according to Swedish author Håkan Nesser. And after the emergence of murderous neo-Nazis, Scandi authors (who wrote about such things years ago) are now the go-to commentators — both Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell (the latter with the keenest of social consciences) were repeatedly asked to comment on 2011’s Norwegian massacre. Mankell, too, was a captive of the Israeli forces when he took part in the attempt break through the Gaza blockade.

5. Polish your literary gloss

Make sure your model is a literary writer like Henning Mankell whose prose is highly regarded, rather than a popular writer like Dan Brown – whose prose isn’t. It’s the more ‘serious’, upmarket publishers who found they had a goldmine on their hands with this sophisticated, well-written mayhem: the sales-record-breaking Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in the UK by Christopher MacLehose, a literary heavyweight.

6. Get all your references right

Scandi crime fiction fans are ruthless: get your cultural/food/music references right, or you’re toast. Bone up on the cutting Sweden vs. Denmark jokes in The Killing (also useful for what may be The Next Big Thing, the hit Swedish/Danish TV crime series The Bridge). And don’t turn up your nose at unusual food peculiarities, such as the succulent sheep’s head snack the detective gnaws on in the Icelandic Jar City.

7. If you’re English, pretend to be Scandinavian

Some canny British writers (such as Michael Ridpath and Quentin Bates) have seen the way the icy wind is blowing, and are writing their own Scandinavian-set crime series. If your name is Chris Moss, be Christian Madsen; I’m Børge Forshawsen when I need to be.

8. Keep your violence industrial strength

Nobody ever went broke overestimating readers’ taste for the gruesome in Nordic Noir (the eye gougings and strangulation in Yrsa Sigurđardóttir’s Last Rituals, the mass mutilation of a village in Mankell’s The Man from Beijing, everything that happens to Lisbeth Salander – and what she does in revenge, with needles and painfully-applied sex aids).

9. Make sure the film rights go to the right people

Get the Swedish company Yellow Bird onside, and have your Kurt Wallander type played by both Krister Henriksson and Kenneth Branagh (so aficionados can argue over who’s better). Or secure the services of a major American director (David Fincher has remade The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

10. Read and reread all the key writers

Immerse yourself in Nordic Noir until a chill has entered your bloodstream: the writers above, plus criminal-and-criminologist duo Roslund and Hellström, Camilla Läckberg and Anne Holt (both of whom tip their hats to Britain’s Dame Agatha), master of the Scandi private eye novel Gunnar Staalesen, the disturbing Johan Theorin, the terrifying Jussi Adler-Olsen. And Karin Fossum, Norway’s Patricia Highsmith.

Six Key Scandinavian Thrillers (in no particular order)

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – Peter Hoeg (1992)

The atmospheric literary crime novel that almost single-handedly inaugurated – without trying to – the current Scandinavian invasion. 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 Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (1968)

Two writers – a crime-writing team – might be said to have started it all. The critical stock of Sjöwall/Wahlöö could not be higher: they are celebrated as the very best exponents of the police procedural. Martin Beck is the ultimate Scandinavian copper, and if you prefer to ignore the subtle Marxist perspective of the books, it is easy to do so.

The Redbreast – Jo Nesbo (2000)

Is he really ‘The Next Stieg Larsson’ as it proclaims on the jackets? He’s certainly the breakthrough Nordic crime writer post-Larsson, and more quirky and individual than most of his Scandinavian colleagues – not least thanks to Nesbø’s wonderfully dyspeptic detective Harry Hole (pronounced ‘Hurler’). The Redbreast bristles with a scarifying vision of Nordic fascism.

Firewall – Henning Mankell (1998)

Mankell’s Kurt Wallander 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.

Woman with Birthmark – Hakan Nesser (1996)

Where does Håkan Nesser set his novels? It’s not important; his crime fiction, located in an unnamed Scandinavian country, is so commandingly written it makes most contemporary crime fare seem rather thin gruel. Nesser’s copper, Van Veeteren, has been lauded by Colin Dexter as ‘destined for a place among the great European detectives’.

Jar City – Arnaldur Indridason (2000)

The talented Indriđason is making a mark with his Reykjavik-set thrillers. His debut, Jar City (successfully filmed), is Indriđason’s calling card. When the body of an old man is found in his apartment, DI Erlendur discovers that the murdered man has been accused of rape in the past.


Take a look at the official website for more information about the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

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