The enduring appeal of Nordic novels

I've become a bit overwhelmed recently with links to articles in the media about Scandinavian, or Nordic, crime fiction. People kindly send me them, they crop up in my RSS reader, or they are added to the Friend Feed crime fiction room. I like to read them but it is getting hard to distinguish them in my mind. Almost all of them have the same structure – they ask why crime fiction from the region is suddenly so popular, and say that people must like gloom. The examples given are usually Swedish and invariably include Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell – the latter being not a new author by any means, but given new relevance via two television series, one Swedish and the other English. Occasionally such articles look back to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Swedish authors again, who are regarded as parents of the modern police procedural novel and whose ten-series Martin Beck books were written mainly in the 1970s.

One example is Laura Miller's The Strange Case of the Nordic Detectives, from the Wall St Journal (15 January).  (via Dave Lull, FriendFeed and my RSS reader and probably elsewhere.) An example of her argument is: "In Scandinavian detective fiction, this stoic ideal takes the form of a stalwart, methodical practicality. Almost all Nordic crime novels are procedurals, a genre that focuses on the often monotonous, day-to-day details of police work." A less restrictive set of examples would have undermined these conclusions (Leif Davidson, Karin Altvegen, Gunnar Staalesen, Anne Holt, Jo Nesbo, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, etc). Miller does, however, acknowledge the "pitch black humor" in the "form's austere pleasures", Hakan Nesser (not mentioned in the article) perhaps being the best example of that.

There is a much more informed, and interesting, piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald, which sensibly does not seek to generalise a whole region or genre, on the international appeal of Stieg Larsson: sex, revenge, identification with the particular brand of feminism in the novels ("female characters are universally clear thinking, resourceful and good"), and "because we, too, feel hurt; betrayed by a system that deceives us into wars we don't want and environmental crises we could avoid".   

A more original, and informed, article than Miller's is one by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent (link kindly sent by Simon Clarke, in Euro Crime news,  and discussed by Barbara Fister at her blog). The article ("will a global vision renew Nordic crime fiction appeal?") sets out to show how the 'new' interest in Nordic noir is causing several books to be repackaged accordingly, even though they are only tangentially 'crime' fiction. It's an informed article (mentioning several authors and books I didn't know), being in its second half a review of The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell – Tonkin making the point that Scandinavian crime fiction is increasingly embracing international themes as a sort of "global social conscience". (Although so is crime fiction from any region of the world you care to mention – as, indeed, asserted in the Times Literary Supplement last week.) He recommends Asa Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason and Camilla Lackberg to readers who have not ventured further than Mankell and S. Larsson. A look at the Euro Crime database for Scandinavia would provide these and a lot more riches – with links to reviews in many cases.