Scandinavian noir : in pursuit of a mystery

In the course of the past thirty years, Scandinavian crime fiction has become an increasingly popular genre among English-speaking readers and television viewers, to the extent that a guidebook called Nordic Noir was published in 2013.

Wendy Lesser, editor of the journal Threepenny Review, author of numerous books about literature and art, and confirmed Nordic noir fan, has approached the topic from a different angle in her latest book. In the first half, called “Fiction as Reality”, she describes what a reader, who has never visited Scandinavia, can deduce about the region from the plots and characters of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish crime novels. (She excludes Iceland, admitting that she prefers books with urban settings.) Then, in the concluding half, “Reality as Fiction”, she travels to all three countries for the first time, and speaks with a variety of natives, including quite a few police officers.

Lesser, like many American mystery readers, was first introduced to Scandinavian crime through the ten Martin Beck novels, produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. She discovered them in the early 1980s, and they remain her favorite Scandinavian crime series; she has read and re-read them numerous times. Their popularity in America did not immediately lead to a flood of other Scandinavian translations into English; that had to wait until the late 1990s, when Henning Mankell’s books about Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander began to appear in translation; their success and that of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books, a few years later, has led to a flood of Nordic police and crime novels that shows no sign of abating. Lesser’s favorite among living authors in the genre is Norway’s Jo Nesbø, the creator of Oslo police detective Harry Hole. All of these, plus many other fictional sleuths created by other writers, are frequently referenced in the “Fiction as Reality” section of the book, which is, for no particular reason, divided into 26 sections representing topics that start with each letter of the alphabet. (If you’re wondering, “X” is for xenophobia.) This series of mini-essays offers interesting speculations on a variety of topics such as the apparent importance of both alcohol and holidays in Scandinavian culture; the focus on teamwork among the Scandinavian police (as opposed to the “loner” cops and private eyes favored by most American writers); and the alarmingly high incidence of crimes against children in these books.

Once Lesser arrives in Scandinavia, the narrative moves into third-person present tense and becomes more of a travelogue. She discovers that some of her fiction-based assumptions are correct: Denmark is the grungiest of the three nations--the one where you’re most likely to encounter people passed out drunk on the street. Norway is the neatest and cleanest--to the extent of being a trifle dull on occasion, and Sweden is somewhere in between.  This is reflected in details such as the packaging for the popular smokeless tobacco snus, which is sold in plain tins in Oslo but in brightly colored ones in Stockholm. The murder rate in all three nations is much lower than in the U.S., with Sweden’s being highest. The many guns owned by Scandinavians are carefully regulated, with most owned by hunters and target-shooters, and few bought for protection. None of the Scandinavian countries has the death penalty, and in Norway the maximum sentence, even for mass murderer Anders Breivik, is 21 years--though that can be extended as the authorities see fit.

The conversations Lesser has with real-life police officials are illuminating and often entertaining. They all admit to enjoying the exploits of their fictional counterparts, though one points out that Harry Hole’s actions would have gotten him kicked off the actual Oslo police force in no time. They give serious, thoughtful answers to questions about issues like the assimilation problems of recent Middle East refugees. When she visits Ystad in southern Sweden, where the fictional Kurt Wallander lived, the police officer there commiserates with her, over her horror that parts of the town resemble a Wallander theme park, with tourist maps, cute shop names, etc.

This clever examination of the parallels and divergences between fiction and reality is recommended for readers who are already familiar with Nordic noir, for those who think they might like to give it a try, and for anyone who enjoys a well-written, thoughtful travel diary. 

Readers can find a selection of novels in this LAPL Reads book list:  Scandinavian Murder Mysteries.