Nordic crime fiction

Since 1990s, Nordic crime fiction has been a significant sub-genre within the global genre of crime fiction. Usually characterised by social realism, gloomy locations and morose detectives, crime novels and TV series from across the Nordic region provide puzzling mysteries and thrilling stories that use the crime plot to investigate the state of justice, equality, vulnerability and current debates specific to the Nordic welfare societies. The genre includes modern TV classics such as the Danish Forbrydelsen (The Killing, 2007-2012), the Danish/Swedish co-production Bron/Broen (The Bridge, 2011-2018) and global bestsellers by the Norwegian Jo Nesbø and the Swede Stieg Larsson, but it also includes dark and critical images of the underbelly of the Nordic states, which extend further back in history, even to literary works from the nineteenth century.

2019.03.05 | Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

Nordic crime fiction is a literary genre and a publishing phenomenon; it rides the wave of popular interest in the Nordic countries, but frequently criticises and undercuts notions of the welfare state.

In the twenty-first century, Nordic crime fiction is a literary genre and a publishing phenomenon which has maintained its local socio-critical potential in a global market place for books and entertainment. The success of the genre is increasingly reinforced by film adaptations and series made for television. Arguably, Nordic crime fiction only became recognised as constituting a common ‘regional genre’ when crime novels from the Nordic countries became translated and television series subtitled, dubbed or remade into a wide range of languages. The reasons for the international success of Nordic crime fiction abroad are many ranging, from the ability of authors and screen writers to blend regional particularities with widely recognisable international forms, to Nordic publishing and media industries’ growing internationalisation since the 1990s.

In some countries outside the Nordic region, the twenty-first century crime boom coincided with a wider fascination with the apparently successful Nordic welfare states and desirable Nordic stereotypes including happiness, quality designer furniture and New Nordic food. The publishing and media industries have benefited greatly from the global ‘brand’ of the Nordic countries and participated in stimulating a desire for ‘all things Nordic’ abroad. Nordic crime fiction as an intermedial genre and a twenty-first century global brand is often referred to as ‘Nordic noir’.

Origins of Nordic crime fiction

Crime fiction in the Nordic countries has a long history with early examples being the Danish Steen Steensen Blicher’s Præsten i Vejlbye (1829) (The Pastor of Vejlbye, 1991) and the Norwegian Maurits Hansen’s detective story Mordet på Maskinbygger Roolfsen (1839) (The Murder of Engineer Roolfsen). It is in the period since the Second World War, however, that Nordic crime fiction has contributed a particular accent and a growing number of globally successful authors to a predominantly Anglo-American genre.

Nordic crime fiction since the Second World War is indebted to the British Golden Age of crime writers in the 1920s and 1930s, with writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, and shares many traits with the American hard-boiled private detective stories of Raymond Chandler and the police procedurals of Ed McBain. However, it was with the Swedish author duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-volume series about Martin Beck (1965-75), collectively known as ‘Roman om ett brott’ (‘Report of a Crime’), and the new wave of crime writing in the 1990s, that Nordic crime fiction added to the various sub-genres of crime fiction an emphasis on social realism and criticism, gloomy Nordic locations and the trademark morose detective.

The success of the Nordic police procedural

In the 1960s, Sjöwall and Wahlöö translated into Swedish several of Ed McBain’s ‘87th precinct’ novels which were pioneering police procedurals. This inspired the use of a formula wherein the private lives and personal struggles of police officers are mirrored in the larger socio-political landscape of Sweden’s folkhem (People’s Home), the particular Swedish version of the Nordic welfare state. The Swedes Sjöwall and Wahlöö went on to write the Report of a Crime series, which is often cited as the single most influential work of socio-critical crime fiction to subsequent writers in the genre across the Nordic region and beyond.

From their Marxist-Leninist perspective, Sjöwall and Wahlöö explicitly aimed to use their crime novels as a means to analyse the Swedish welfare state, to relate crime to its political and ideological doctrines, and to reveal its perceived fascist nature. The subtitle of the novel, ‘Report of a crime’, was then both an indicator of the genre and a programmatic statement criticising the ‘criminal’ subservience of the welfare state to capitalism. From Roseanna (1965) (Roseanna, 1967) to Terroristerna (1975) (The Terrorists, 1976), Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s crime novels follow Martin Beck and his homicide squad from the sex murder of an American tourist to the murder of the prime minister of a Swedish police state, anticipating the murder of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme by a decade. In their investigations, Beck and his team are constantly faced with an impenetrable police bureaucracy, a metonymy for a brutal society that gradually overshadows the idyllic Swedish post-war welfare state.

Less politically radical in his critique of Danish society, Anders Bodelsen from Denmark similarly used the social realistic thriller to explore the new realities of the welfare state in his Tænk på et tal (1968) (Think of a Number, 1969). Bodelsen insisted that collective conflicts should be understood through the private; and in his breakthrough novel the personal conflict of a bank cashier, who is tempted to hide the loot from a bank robbery, is reflected in society’s balancing act between materialism and social responsibility.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Nordic thriller gained international attention with the Swede Jan Guillou’s Coq Rouge series (1986-2006) featuring the Swedish spy Carl Hamilton, a nobleman with socialist leanings, and with the work of Danish Leif Davidsen, whose political thrillers focused on Russia and the new Europe, e.g. in Den russiske sangerinde (1988) (The Russian Singer, 1991) and Den serbiske dansker (1996) (The Serbian Dane, 2007). Like Bodelsen and later Stieg Larsson (Sweden), these writers were already well-known and, in the case of Guillou, a controversial journalist, who used the sub-genre of the thriller to criticise and reflect on the changing national and global socio-political climate in the final years of the 20th century.

The police procedural rode the cusp of the new wave of Nordic crime fiction in 1990s.

1990s wave of Nordic crime fiction

It was the police procedural in the style of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s that would ride the cusp of the new wave of Nordic crime fiction in the 1990s. Henning Mankell’s (from Sweden) Inspector Kurt Wallander, Åke Edwardson’s (also Swedish) Chief Inspector Erik Winter, Arnaldur Indriðason’s (from Iceland) Detective Erlendur, Matti Yrjänä Joensuu’s (Finland) Detective Sergeant Timo Harjunpää and Håkan Nesser’s (both from Sweden) Chief Inspector Van Veeteren have all become synonymous with the Nordic police procedural’s male anti-hero investigator. 

  • Mankell’s Wallander series: From Mördare utan ansikte (1991) (Faceless Killers, 1997) to Den orolige mannen (2009) (The Troubled Man, 2011), Mankell’s Wallander series takes place in and around the provincial southern Swedish town of Ystad on the shore of the Baltic. Mankell intended the Wallander series as an investigation into the deterioration of the often celebrated Swedish social consciousness infected by a growing sense of insecurity and xenophobia. While set in a provincial borderland, Mankell’s crime fiction is global in scope, confronting the attitudes of a provincial Swedish microcosm towards border-crossing phenomena such as:

    • immigration (Mördare utan ansikte, 1991; Faceless Killers, 1997);
    • organ trafficking in the developing world (Mannen som log, 1994; The Man Who Smiled, 2005);
    • human trafficking (Villospår, 1995; Sidetracked, 2000);
    • Swedish mercenaries in the Congo (Den femte kvinnan, 1996; The Fifth Woman, 2001); and
    • an international conspiracy to destroy the financial system to right the wrongs of worldwide economic inequality (Brandvägg, 1988; Firewall, 2004). 

    Rather than focusing solely on crimes and their investigation, Mankell’s texts devote much attention to Wallander’s thought processes, his poor habits, ailing body and deteriorating relationships.  Throughout the series, Wallander, with his psychological and bodily wounds, becomes a complex reflector of a society unable to commit ethically and with solidarity to the challenges of a globalised world.

  • Nesser’s Van Veeteren series: This series is less explicitly critical of contemporary society and less interested in international affairs than Mankell’s, as its setting in the fictitious European country Maardam suggests. However, a recurrent theme that Nesser’s crime fiction shares with several other Nordic crime novels is the abuse of women by men, most explicitly explored in Kvinna med födelsemärke (1996, Woman with Birthmark, 2009).
  • Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow: It was arguably with the Dane Peter Høeg’s Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, 1993) that the Nordic crime novel broke through to the international market as a global brand and blurred the boundaries between high and popular culture. Offering a highly critical view of Denmark’s colonial exploitations of Greenland through the Greenlandic-Danish scientist-protagonist Smilla Jaspersen, the novel also contributed to discussions of cultural belonging, gender and identity in a postcolonial, globalised era.
  • Other contributions: Although not exclusively writers of genre fiction, and focusing to a larger extent on the psychological and communal effects of crime, Swede Kerstin Ekman and Norwegian Karin Fossum have similarly explored the geographical and cultural peripheries of late-modern Scandinavia in internationally acclaimed crime novels. Examples are Ekman’s Händelser vid vatten (1993) (Blackwater, 1996) and Fossum’s series about Konrad Sejer, including Se deg ikke tilbake! (1996) (Don’t Look Back, 2002).

Key themes 

  • Female protagonists: Dominating the debates about Nordic crime writing in the 1990s, and to a large extent the bestseller lists, was what first became known in Sweden as the femikrimi, crime novels with a female protagonist, written by women often from a feminist perspective. This new wave of women crime writers includes Liza Marklund and Camilla Läckberg (both from Sweden); Gretelise Holm and Sara Blædel (both from Denmark); Anne Holt (Norway) and Leena Letholainen (Finland). While indebted to the (often masculine) conventions of the genre and the Nordic social realist tradition, including the focus on gender and sexual politics, these writers reverse the traditional depiction of women in the genre as passive, asexual and inferior. From an explicit feminist perspective, Liza Marklund’s series with the journalist Annika Bengtzon, beginning with Sprängaren (1998, The Bomber, 2000), recounts the struggles facing an ambitious female crime reporter, juggling family responsibilities in her everyday life in a male dominated world, and solving crimes that also include domestic violence. 
  • Violence against women, the corruption of the welfare state and moral bankruptcy of capital: These were central themes in Danish Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series (including Kvinden i buret (2007) (Mercy, 2011)) and Swedish Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published international blockbuster the Millenium Trilogy: Män som hatar kvinnor (2005, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2008), Flickan som lekte med elden (2006, The Girl Who Played with Fire, 2009) and Luftslottet som sprängdes (2007, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, 2009). The global success of Nordic crime fiction in the new millennium is indebted to the unprecedented sales and global reach of these three novels (and their later film adaptations and additional instalments written by David Lagercrantz). However, the Millennium Trilogy also shares a more local and critical interest in revising the culturally suppressed influences of right-wing ideologies and the legacy of the Second World War on contemporary Swedish society with novels such as Arne Dahl’s (Sweden) Dödsmässa (2004) (Requiem), Gunnar Staalesen’s (Norway) I mørket er alle ulver grå (1983, At Night All Wolves are Grey, 1986), and Jo Nesbø’s (Norway) third Harry Hole novel, Rødstrupe (2000, The Redbreast, 2006).

Twenty-first century success of Nordic noir

In the twenty-first century, Nordic crime fiction is a literary genre and a publishing phenomenon which has maintained its local socio-critical potential in a global market place for books and entertainment with strong traditions and publishing catalogues in all of the Nordic countries. The success of the genre is increasingly reinforced by adaptations into film and series made for television, as well as original TV drama productions. For instance:

  • Mankell’s Wallander series was made into a TV series produced by Svensk Filmindustri and Yellow Bird (2005-2010);
  • Yellow Bird also produced a UK remake of Wallander (2008-);
  • The Danish television drama Forbrydelsen (The Killing, 2007-2012) was produced by DR (Danmarks Radio, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation);
  • The US remake of The Killing (2011) was produced by Fox Television Studios and Fuse Entertainment;
  • The series was also novelised by the British writer David Hewson; and,
  • The Danish/Swedish co-production Bron/Broen (The Bridge, 2011-2018) has been remade for several regions including the French-British The Tunnel and the US-Mexican The Bridge.

Further reading:

  • A.M. Waade and K. T. Hansen, Locating Nordic Noir: From Beck to The Bridge, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  • A. Nestingen, Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).
  • A. Nestingen and P. Arvas, (eds.) Scandinavian Crime Fiction (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011).
  • B. Forshaw, Scandinavian Crime Fiction: Death in a Cold Climate (London: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2012).
  • J. Stougaard-Nielsen, Scandinavian Crime Fiction (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
  • K. Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir (Milan: Mimesis, 2014).
  • M. Tapper, Swedish Cops: From Sjöwall and Wahlöö to Stieg Larsson. (Bristol: Intellect, 2014).