Why Scandinavians Really Write the Best Crime Novels

07/17/2009 4:00 AM |

Although the Scandinavian crime novel has enjoyed immense popularity in Europe for decades, it has become something of a sensation in the English-speaking world in recent years. Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Arnaldur Indriðason, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbø and myriad others from the Nordic climes have become staples in the diets of mystery aficionados in the U.S. and U.K., but not without a fair amount of bemusement on the part of these readers. After all, how can such a blood-drenched genre flourish in countries whose murder rates frequently fall well below that of Connecticut?

In the wake of the almost unfathomably successful English publication of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and looking forward to the publication of its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire (forthcoming this month), Nathaniel Rich rekindles this debate to somewhat limited effect.

It’s become something of a hobby for avid English-speaking critics to speculate on the prevalence of crime novels from those adorably morbid, and yet — as far as many are concerned — wholly peaceful Scandinavian countries. Multitudes of reviewers have weighed in on what distinguishes these Scandinavian novels from their American and European cousins, pointing to their exotic locations and “sense of the other“, their empathetic and beleaguered detectives, and even Scandinavia’s perceived role as “the world’s Puritan conscience.” And while there’s certainly something to each of these assertions, all in all, they appear to be part of a somewhat idle conversation which simply seeks to engender a bit of pattern recognition: “Hey, there’re awful lot of Swedish (Norwegian/Icelandic/Danish/Finnish) authors being published these days.”

Rich’s main assertion concerns the unique contrast Scandinavian crime novels evoke: heinous crimes occurring against a backdrop of “sublime tranquility… a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness.” (It bears noting that he tends to shorthand “Scandinavia” with “Ikea” — that oh-so-quirky, familiar import which is at once ultra chic and woefully tacky. Stieg Larsson’s depiction of Stockholm is likened to “the Ikea approach-modish design with a side of Swedish meatballs.” In a later passage, he quips that when “goons intrude upon the world of glossy magazines and Ikea, the result is pleasantly discordant.”) For Rich, Larsson’s “novels mark the apotheosis of the genre,” setting themselves apart from their counterparts, which as a whole, depend on “catatonic detectives tramping across frozen tundra.” Larsson, he suggests, “may have provided a new direction for Scandinavian fiction.”

4 Comment

  • You know, it occurs to me, finally, that Rich might at least be right about the appeal of the books. Most of the people buying these books — like many, many fans of location specific crime fiction — are essentially armchair tourists. So, to be charitable to Rich, he does a very good job of explaining the appeal the books hold to someone with only a vague idea of Scandinavia.

  • Agreed with this perceptive article and with Mark Asch. As you write in your article, there are other Sandinavian authors examining society within a crime-fiction framework in this way: Asa Larsson, Karin Alvtegen, Kjell Erickson, Ake Edwardsen et al (Sweden), Karin Fossum (Norway) and Lief Davisen (Denmark) as well as those you cite and others. I also think that other European authors are writing similar books, eg Andrea Camilleri and Gianrico Carofiglio against the background of Mafia and political/societal corruption in Italy. (and so on….)

  • Another Swedish writer of note is Inger Frimansson who has twice won the Best Swedish Crime Novel, once in 1998 for Goodnight My Darling and again in 2005 for its sequel Shadow in the Water. Frimansson’s novels are notable for being psychologically intense rather than plot driven. Betrayal, revenge, and guilt dominate her work.

  • Great article — although I firmly disagree with you about one thing. I have read almost nothing but Scandinavian crime fiction for the last year or so, and I could barely make it through Stieg Larsson’s books. I much prefer Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser (I don’t recall you mentioning him) and Karin Fossum. If you’re interested at all, I did a best of crime and mystery 2009 list for Litkicks, in which I included four of the year’s best Scandinavian crime novels at: http://www.litkicks.com/BestMystery2010