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.