Crime fiction from Norway

Having been away for a few days since the tragic and terrible events in Norway, I have seen the news coverage shift into “features” on the topic, one of which has centred on Norway’s crime-fiction authors and whether they have or could cover the type of incident that occurred, or the problems with its society that gave rise to it. Examples include Jakob Stougaard at the Nordic Noir book blog, Brian Oliver in The Observer and Jo Nesbo in the New York Times (translated by Tiina Nunnally).

As is so often the case, many of these questions are non-questions. Norwegian society is no different at some granular level from any other society. Putting laws or masses of anti-terrorist security in place has not stopped warped individuals or groups from committing terrible hate crimes – which have occurred recently in the USA, the UK, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Spain as well as in less stable regimes. All societies are a mix of those who have no time for violence against a child, adult or group; and those who find at least one of these abhorrent activities justifiable under some circumstances.

But turning from political-social observations – not my strong point! – to crime fiction which I do know a bit about, I thought it might be interesting to look at Norwegian crime-fiction authors to see whether they have, in fact, been blissfully unaware of the “hate” problems that beset individuals or groups in their country or elsewhere, or whether they have been confronting these issues in the same way as done by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo for Sweden. These authors wrote a ten-book series with the umbrella title The Story of a Crime, which together formed a blistering criticism of the 1970s welfare state. The books are dated in some respects, not least their espousal of Marxism, but setting aside the authors’ “solution”, they are marvellous depictions of the flaws in that particular society and its organised structures. Since then, many authors have been inspired by these books – I would say that if you only read one crime fiction series in your life, make it this one, as all the elements are there.

But returning to Norway. The magnificent Euro Crime database lists authors from the region, which I’ve used over the past few years to discover many authors from this country, together with their wonderful translators. Here are a few of them, with my take on their ability to assess human nature (as opposed to them being blinkered by living in a paradise!).

Gunnar Staalesen. Perhaps the most clear carrier of the Sjowall-Wahloo baton, Staalesen started his series about PI Varg Veum back in the 1970s just about when Martin Beck was hanging up his metaphorical truncheon. Only four of the approx 20 books have so far been translated, of which I’ve read the three that are in print. Varg Veum is an ex-social worker; many of his cases involve damaged children (or those who were damaged as children), as he carries out his Philip Marlowe-like investigations. He’s at odds somewhat with the Bergen police force, but comes to an uneasy alliance with them as he’s pretty good at solving crimes, partly because of his inside knowledge of how the welfare system works and how it is abused. If anyone thinks that Norwegian crime authors have their heads in the sands, they would immediately be disabused by reading these hard-hitting, well-constructed stories. Veum is, apparently, getting rather old now but luckily in the first translated book he has a young son who is now of an age to be able to succeed him – or so the author has hinted on his recent trip to the UK.

Anne Holt has written four books about a profiler and psychology academic Johanne Vik and her partner, senior policeman Adam Stubo (whose Norwegian name is not Adam but got lost in translation!). This series perhaps comes closest of the Norwegian books I’ve read to an analysis of organised “hate” crime, in that Johanne has spent time in Quantico as an FBI profiler and Adam is in the national police squad that takes over investigations of serious crimes from local forces. Part of the charm of this series is the domestic juggling that Johanne, in particular, has to do (which unfortunately, like other fictional characters in her situation seems to make her a target for men and women to dislike – don’t people realise how hard it is to be a good parent – in her case one of her children has specialist needs – and hold down a high-maintenance job?). In the last two books in this series the author explores the topic of organised “hate” crime- in Death in Oslo the topic is the kidnapping of the US president on a state visit to Norway; and in Fear Not the topic is the targeting of victims on racial or “moralistic” grounds, but at the end of the day, for profit. Fear Not contains a section that analyses this problem in a way that is separate from the rest of the novel, and is quite fascinating. Anne Holt herself is an ex-lawyer who was once Norway’s justice minister, so she is confident and persuasive when writing about these topics. She has written another, longer series about Hanne Wilhelmsen, a police officer seriously wounded in the course of duty so confined to a wheelchair. So far, only one of this series has been translated, and it’s a late one (though Hanne is a minor character in some of the Vik/Stubo books), so the jury is still out for this second series as far as English language readers are concerned.

Frode Grytten is a Norwegian author probably nobody has heard of. So far he has written one very good novel, The Shadow in the River, about a freelance journalist living in a decaying industrial town called Odda. He ends up investigating an apparent racially inspired crime, and in the process uncovers plenty of miserable prejudice and lack of integrity. This novel is highly recommended, written by someone with a clear perception of some of society’s ills. I hope the author writes more books.

Ella Griffiths wrote two novels back in the 1980s about two Oslo police detective brothers. (She also published a collection of short stories, one of which was used for one of the Roald Dahl-inspired Tales from the Unexpected TV series.) Sadly these books are not in print but I hope some enterprising publisher will make e-versions of them at least. Murder on Page Three and The Water Widow pull no punches in their depiction of family break-ups, drug addiction and so on. No idealistic society here, in these brisk and engaging novels.

Karin Fossum. Often called “Norway’s queen of crime”, Fossum has had nine books translated into English since 2002, all of which I have read. These novels are often rather like fables or allegories, set in country villages, but with a really sharp splinter. They address “small” crimes against individuals, and follow the consequences, which usually spiral out of control. These novels are short and written with a deceptive simplicity which makes the punch, when it comes, land very heavily. Fossum’s books are very sad indeed, and do not depict a very happy world. Nominally, most of them are police procedurals involving Inspector Sejer and his younger sidekick Jacob Skarre, but the men usually function in a subsidiary capacity, to keep the plot moving or to debate issues such as whether paedophiles can or should be rehabilitated into society. Very bleak, but rewarding, tales in which muddled up racial prejudice is but one element in a rich mix of awfulness.

K. O. Dahl is an underrated author who writes very good Oslo-based police procedurals. Reading them in chronological (as opposed to translated) order helps, as Gunnerstrada and Frolich, grimly funny individuals, investigate crimes of drug addiction, the hidden past of World War II, and other similar matters. The first book available in translation, The Fourth Man (featuring a befuddled Frolich), is not a patch on the next two, The Last Fix and The Man in the Window, which are great traditional police procedurals with a bleak heart and strong characterisation.

Pernille Rygg wrote a wonderful book, The Butterfly Effect, about a young woman who takes over a case from her recently dead father, a private detective. She’s a psychologist with supposed personality problems, what is more she hates her bourgeois mother and stepfather, has a transvestite boyfriend, and gets tangled up with witches and satanic sects. Unfortunately, the second novel, The Golden Section, did not fulfil the promise of the first and so far as I know the author has not written more. But The Butterfly Effect (1995) certainly puts paid to the idea that Norwegian writers were or are unaware of the seamier side of society and some individuals within it.

Jo Nesbo, currently the most fashionable and best-selling Norwegian author, and of these examples the only one who writes pure thrillers. The main character is Harry Hole of the Oslo (again) police, a man on an increasingly suicidal track but with a great sense of humour. As well as his over-elaborate but rollercoasting, searing plots, Nesbo addresses all the contemporary issues of crime fiction – Norway’s secret World War II past (The Redbreast), refugees from the former Yugoslavia (The Redeemer), the Russian mafia (Nemesis) and religious sects (The Devil’s Star) are all grist for Nesbo’s mill, as well as Harry’s relationships with his colleagues and doomed attempts at finding peace in his off-duty life. Nesbo’s two most recently translated titles, The Snowman and The Leopard, have focused more on the serial killer/gruesome torture end of the genre, which sadly seems to have contributed to his international popularity, but I hope he will return to more interesting and individual themes in future.

All these novels are bought to use by wonderful translators who deserve our (English speakers’) thanks for their efforts – Don Bartlett, Charlotte Barslund, Kari Dickson, Joan Tate, Tiina Nunnally/Felicity David, Robert Ferguson, Margaret Amassian, Hal Sutcliffe, Basil J Cowlishaw, K E Semmel, and others. Our gratitude is due to them for enabling us to read these authors’ books.

One final comment – one could look at other nations’ crime fiction – England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Denmark and so on, and find as many books that address difficult, unpleasant but real issues in society as well as featuring good plotting, characterisation and stories. A sense of place marks a good novel, of course, but though place provides a specific snapshot, the issues faced by us are common ones wherever we live. Crime fiction provides a most appropriate lens with which to examine such matters, often being well ahead of the curve, while enjoying a good story as we go.

Above is a brief synopsis of books I’ve read by Norwegian authors. There are more authors and books from the region that I have not read, of course, which can be investigated via the excellent Euro Crime listing.

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31 thoughts on “Crime fiction from Norway

  1. Note, we should not forget authors from other nationalities, such as Robert Barnard, who have written very good books set in Norway (in RB’s case, Trondheim).

  2. Maxine – What a superb post! Such an elegant argument that crime fiction shows us who we are as a people, even the unpleasant sides. Crime fiction also shows us who we could be as a people. This is really excellent!

  3. Wonderful post Petrona. I like how you introduced some of the Norwegian author and Jo Nesbo is on my pile now, talk about fashionable his books seem to be in every review but I’m not keen on torture.. oh dear, I’ll tread with caution.

    I’m quite a ignoramus when it comes to Crime fiction but the one Norwegian author I read on my younger days and coincidentally today (A Castle on the Prynees) is Jostein Gaarder.

    • Thanks, JoV, I’ll try him out. At least Nesbo’s torture/agony scenes are in occasional separate chapters or passages, without impinging on the rest of the narrative, so they can be skipped over as soon as one realises one has hit such a description, without detriment to the plot. (Which makes me deeply sceptical of why they are there at all, how sad if for commercial reasons – what does this say about people’s tastes?)

  4. Terrific post, a couple more authors to try out but I won’t hold it against you. My current bok is by another Norwegian crime writer, Thomas Enger, and is called BURNED. The main crime under investigation appears at this point to have been motivated by a desire to expose the nasty side of Sharia law (though I suspect this might turn out to be.a red herring) but what I found interesting in light of recent events is that the undertones that come through in the book – some people are nasty racists and some aren’t – is very much like anywhere else these days. I think it’s fascinating to see reactions to these kinds of events because it seems to be e kind of thing that forces people collectively to challenge their notions of their own national identity. In reality those concepts a all probably long outdated if they were ever true but they have a strong hold on cultures. I remember when Australia had a horrific mass shooting back in the 90′s (at a tourist attraction some 35+ people were killed) much of the media focus was on how this event was at odds with our culture of mateship etc. In reality that culture hasn’t existed for a long time if it ever did and the shooter was just a crazy man (of whom there has always been a supply).

    • Thanks, Bernadette – I am in a queue for Enger’s Burned but as I haven’t read it yet I didn’t include it. I’m looking forward to it, though.

  5. Of course it’s a book not a bok. Damned iPad corrects words that don’t need correcting but happily skips over bok :(

  6. Thanks for this wonderful analysis of crime fiction from Norway. After the tragic events in Oslo, and on Utoya Island, will it ever be possible to have a sensible discussion about the problems raised by mass immigration into a country with a very small population?

  7. Excellent post and excellent overview of Norwegian crime fiction–I didn’t realize there were so many authors writing crime novels from there. And I can see I really do need to pull out my Sjowall/Wahloo books and read them! I read a quote somewhere (perhaps am thinking about what Margot mentions) that if you want to understand a culture to look at their crime-well, something to that effect. Thanks for the links, by the way–will check them out.

  8. Ha ha, Frode Grytten has an extensive bibliography! He’s written almost twenty books. “Flytande Bjørn” (the one you read) so far his only crime novel. He also has a large production of journalism and essays which has recently been published. He is by many held to be one of the greatest living Norwegian authors, especially for his short fiction, which is excellent. He is marked by his great sense of humour, poetic language and a political insightfulness which serves him well. You should ask your local publishers to translate “Bikubesong”.

    • How fascinating, Martin, thanks. I’ll find out whether any of these have been translated into English as I did enjoy his crime novel.

  9. Wow, Maxine, excellent article, and I appreciate the tips on writers I haven’t heard of. Not that I do Norwegian very often, I leave that to Tiina. Keep it up — let’s do Danish next time!

    • I’m constantly amazed by all the translations you and Tiina do, Steve. At the moment every other book I read seems to have been translated by her – have just finished Camilla Lackberg’s The Hidden Child on which she did a superb job – seems you are a double act on that series ;-)

  10. Thanks for this inetersting and thoughtful post, Maxine. I have read several of these authors, including Pernille Rygg (who I thought might become a favourite), but not Frode Grytten who is now on my To Be Read pile.

    I would strongly recomend Jan Kjærstad’s Jonas Wergeland trilogy (The Seducer, The Conqueror and The Discoverer). Although a murder is at the heart of the story they are not exactly crime novels, but they do paint a fascinating picture of Norway.

    Norman, although I understand what you mean, it is worth thinking about the term ‘mass immigration’; according to Wikipedia “the number of immigrants in Norway is currently approximately 601,000, which corresponds to 12.2% of the total population (2011) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_to_Norway.

    Of these, the second largest group are Swedes and the eighth, Danes… and, historically, Norway has been part of both Sweden and Denmark. National identity is a very tricky subject!

    • Indeed, Philip, as I discovered on my recent trip to (among other places) Hungary – there is a country with a fascinating historical past along lines you outline.

  11. An excellent post, and so is the question Norman raises. Perhaps the *number* of immigrants is not as important as what happens once they settle down in Scandinavia? The first many years there was no integration process whatsoever in Denmark; people just expected Arab Muslims to settle down quietly and become Danes in a generation or two like e.g. our Polish immigrants. It did not turn out exactly that way, and that is one of the reasons the right-wing parties have gained so many followers.

  12. This is a terrific post on Norwegian crime fiction, and I’ll write down all of the titles I hadn’t previously known of and try to find them somewhere in the cyberspace of online booksellers. (I so want to find Anne Holt’s books, but my library is very limited.)
    I think Stieg Larsson got it right when he spent much of his life investigating the ultra-right not only in Sweden, but more broadly in Europe. They are dangerous.
    The immigrant community in Norway is in no way to blame for this violence committed by an ultra-right-wing nationalist and bigot. Several young people, the children of immigrants, were attending the youth camp he attacked so that they could learn to be leaders within that society and governmental structure and mainstream political parties. There was absolutely no justification for what was done.
    I get very worried when immigrants or “multi-culturalism” is in any way blamed for this or other violence. We have only to look at the lessons of WWII when the ultra-right in Germany, aided by other countries too, scapegoated and committed the worst violence against the Jewish people, who did nothing wrong,and nothing to justify what happened, and they also targeted Roma and other peoples as well.
    Marine LePen, head now of France’s National Front said awhile ago that they were no longer blaming Jews, but immigrants for their problems. Nice of them!
    I think the thing to do is try to figure out how to work together in a multi-cultural society, build harmonious relations andrespect and then to take seriously and diffuse the right wing.
    I live in a wholly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city. I walk to my corner and see hundreds of people from different countries going to and from work daily. It’s harmonious and friendly. Conversations are good. It’s great and makes me proud of my neighborhood.

    • Agreed, Kathy, whenever an atrocity occurs there are always people ready to jump in hastily and blame someone or some group, often totally in error (eg the post 9/11 US Anthrax mail scare). Where I live is very multicultural but you really notice how it isn’t when you visit other parts of the UK.

  13. Maxine, just wanted to say that even if my worries about the European and U.S. right wing (and we’ve had so many problems here with the Tea Party and Oklahoma City, etc.) tend to overload my comments often, that your post — or analysis — of Norwegian crime fiction is much appreciated.
    My difficulty will be finding many of these books over here.
    And I wholeheartedly agree on Sjowall and Wahloo. Their books are gems. They should be held up in writing classes as Exhibit A on how to write a mystery.
    The only problem is that there are only 10 and I have only five left to read. I am trying to win over friends on this series.

  14. Maxine, and Kathy, even down in Devon we are now multicultural, but we also have Hensher teaching creative writing at the university; and suffered a pathetic but very dangerous attempt to bomb the Giraffe restaurant.

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