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.

4 thoughts on “The enduring appeal of Nordic novels

  1. Henning Mankell–last Thursday in London–said
    that when he was talking to his father-in -law-
    Ingmar Bergman-there used to laugh about the fact that
    people thought their work was gloomy and therefore
    Swedes were gloomy–. He said –in this world there is
    much to be gloomy about -but Sweden was one of the
    most ‘decent’ societies in the world.

  2. Indeed, Simon. Having such a small population must help (compared with the UK for example). It does seem an overgeneralisation (based on what I’ve read) to say Scandinavia equals gloom, despite the “suicide wagons” described in Sjowell/Wahloo. I mean, did no English author ever write a gloomy book?

  3. I’ve been pondering these articles with a mixture of amusement and thoughtfulness of late. I mean I’m half way through Peter Temple’s TRUTH right now and if you took it and its predecessor novel as representative of anything larger than what they are I think you’d make some fairly alarming assumptions about Australia and its crimes and its cops. But we don’t have to worry about that happening because “the world” has a different image in its collective head of Australia and Australians (we are laid back, friendly, sporty types who ride kangaroos to work) and there’s not much Temple or anyone else could do to change that stereotype if they wanted to. So how do these stereotypes get formed? And is it possible to change them or are we stuck with the ones we have forever? And if you were a Swedish Janet Evanovich with a bunch of manuscripts for Stephanie Plum-style fun novels could you get them published or would you be told to add in more snow, winter scenes, suicides and deep introspection?
    I think I have wandered far from your original topic now. Sorry, my mind does that some times. Will go get back on my kangaroo.

  4. Not at all, Bernadette, I think it is a very pertinent point. When I read my first-ever Peter Temple novel (An Iron Rose, maybe?) I was immediately struck by its powerful descriptions of an environment being ruined – not at all what I had in my mind as “typically Australian” (as you say). I won’t say my entire views of the continent changed as a result, but I certainly became aware of more issues and nuances as a result of reading him. And yes, probably there are Swedish Janet Evanoviches writing in Swedish, but nobody has translated them as all the publishers see is a market for doom and gloom 😉

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