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Beginner’s Guide to Nordic Noir

What is Nordic Noir?

Nordic Noir, also referred to as Scandinavian noir, or Swedish crime fiction is a genre of crime fiction written from the view point of the police. As the reader, you are brought into a detailed criminal investigation, often times gritty and violent. The stories take place in bleak landscapes, or urban settings, and often have underlying themes that deal with social injustices. The overall mood of the novel gives a sense of darkness and the leading characters are often more flawed than your typical shiny hero.

How long has this genre been around?

Published in 1965, the book Roseanna by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is credited as being the first of it’s kind in this genre. The book opens when a dredging machine is used to unclog all the muck that gathers on the river bed and a young woman’s body is scooped up in the bucket of the machine. This is a detailed police procedural that follows real time. By that I mean there are periods in the book where progress on solving the crime happens very slowly. Three months into the investigation, and we finally learn the identity of the victim and that she could have been killed by any one of the eighty-five people on a cruise ship. The police gather photos from all the passengers on the cruise to devise a timeline of the victim’s last hours, which eventually lead them to the killer.

Another big name in this genre is Henning Mankell. He is best known for his 11-book series that follows police inspector Kurt Wallander, who is considered by many to be the Swedish Sherlock Holmes. In the first book, Faceless Killers, Wallander tries to solve a brutal double murder at a remote Swedish farmhouse. As is the cornerstone of this genre, the underlying theme deals with social injustice. As the wife draws her final breath she repeats the word “foreign” and many community members think the killer is one of the many immigrants who have recently fled Eastern Europe seeking asylum in Sweden. This puts an added strain on the investigation. This book series was turned into a television series on BBC called “Wallander”.

It was not until the publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Swedish author Stieg Larsson in 2008, that this genre became mainstream in America. If you aren’t familiar with it, this first book in the series follows Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed genius computer hacker and her sometimes love interest Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist, through a murder mystery, family saga, and financial intrigue. Blomkvist is hired to research a decades old unsolved disappearance for a prominent family in Sweden and Salander is called upon to help. In the process, we learn a lot about her dark past. Salander’s back story is gritty and violent as she exacts revenge on her sexually exploitative guardian. This is a unique blend of a character-driven story and plot-driven at the same time.

Coming on the heels of Stieg Larsson and gaining in popularity is the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo. My favorite book in this series is The Snowman which is now a movie coming out October 20th, starring Michael Fassbender as the detective Harry Hole. In this installment Inspector Harry Hole tracks a Norwegian serial killer. A pattern emerges as he discovers over the past decade eleven women have vanished, all on the day of the first snow. You only have to watch this trailer to get a feel for how dark and twisted this genre is. 🎥 The Snowman Trailer