Its worth remembering how the phenomena of Nordic Noir first started. I’ve been reading crime fiction since I was a teenager but the only books I can remember reading in translation were Georges Simenon’s Maigret series. The Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, hugely influential in Scandinavia, were apparently available in English at that time but they certainly weren’t stocked by my local library.
The novel that brought Scandi crime to my attention was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. Although marketed as much as literary fiction as a crime novel, this book has many of the themes that I’ve come to associated with Nordic Noir: a cold setting, a violent and shockingly depicted death and a focus on the community response to the killing.
The novel had a big impact on me and I scoured the bookshops to see what else was available from Scandinavia. The only writer I could find was Henning Mankell but what a discovery he was. Kurt Wallander, Mankell’s detective, is now a recognised name through the popularity of the books and the success of both the Swedish and UK TV series. When I discovered him, however, Wallander felt like he was something different. All those characteristics that have now become clichés, the hard drinking, obsessive detective with a dismal domestic life, began for me with Wallander.
As I read my way through Mankell’s novels, more Scandi books were arriving in the bookshops. I discovered Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City and Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon set in Finland and loved them both. It’s no accident that these two books were chosen for early translation. They’re sublime and both make it onto my top ten Nordic Noir books of all time.
The writer that propelled the genre into international fame was, of course, Stieg Larsson. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a strong female protagonist with Lisbeth Salander dishing out her own brand of retribution. Uncompromising and violent, the book continues themes addressed by Sjöwall and Wahlöö including sex crimes against women and the corruption at the heart polite society. The popularity of Larsson’s trilogy led to films, imitators and, last year, a new book with the characters. The Larsson legacy is going strong mostly down to the creation of Salander. She is the pivot for the complex stories, the damaged victim who becomes the victimiser which resonates with everyone who holds a grudge, however small, for past wrongs.
Larsson’s success paved the way for the English translation of scores of Scandinavian crime authors. Some writers are outstanding. Personal favourites include Yrsa Sigurdardottir from Iceland and Norway’s Karin Fossum. These authors are united by excellent storytelling and strong characterisation. The quality of writing is a credit not only to the authors but to their English translators who bring to an English market the nuances of Scandinavian prose. As readers we want to learn more about the individual counties and we’re not disappointed. Indridason’s detective, Erlendur, continues the Icelandic sagas’ battle of man versus landscape as he obsesses over the loss of his young brother in a snowstorm. Sweden’s shock at the shooting of its Prime Minister Olof Palme and the initial bungling of the police investigation is explored in Leif G W Persson’s books.
The versatility of the genre also accounts for its continuing popularity. If you like the Golden Age authors, try Hans Olav Lahlum who dedicates his second book, Satellite People, to Agatha Christie. If you prefer a darker, more brutal read, this year’s The Crow Girl is an excellent, lengthy book that forces us to confront our preconceptions about female acts of violence.
Of course, not every Scandi crime novel is a masterpiece and in the scramble to add Nordic authors to their lists, publishers did acquire inferior books. It takes more than a cold setting to make for an interesting read. However, it’s easy to spot the writers that will endure. There will be no more Wallander books but Mankell’s writing will continue to inspire readers and writers alike. Similarly Agnes Ravatn’s forthcoming The Bird Tribunal shows that there’s plenty of new talent waiting to be translated.
Has the Scandi invasion influenced British crime writing? This is a difficult one as we already had a rich crime fiction tradition in this country and there are plenty of Nordic authors who cite Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell as influences. However, I do think they have brought something to the way in which we see the world. My own writing has been influenced by the sense of place that you find in Nordic Noir. Landscape is not an add-on in these books, it’s intrinsic to the plot. I like to think that the crimes committed in my new novel, A Deadly Thaw, couldn’t tale place anywhere but in the Derbyshire Peak District.
Ultimately, for me, Nordic Noir’s legacy has been the way in which the grief and suffering is prised open and put on public view. The TV series, The Killing, was powerful not just for the murder plot but for the focus on the impact of the crime. It’s no longer good enough to write a whodunit or even a whydunit. We need to show the lasting legacy of acts of violence. This is Nordic Noir’s greatest contribution to the genre and why it still remains a potent force.