What The Scandiwegians Did For Us
Countries like Iceland have the highest literary rate in the world (it’s pegged at 100%, while 8% of British adults are functionally illiterate and according to US Dept Education National Institute of Literacy statistics 32 million US adults can’t read). So it’s hardly surprising that Nordic literature, television and films should have finally come to the attention of their southern cousins.
Let’s assume you fancy dipping a toe into this dark fictional world – where do you start?
At London’s Bank station, I overheard someone saying ‘I’d like to get into Scandanavian crime, but don’t know where to start.’ Assuming the speaker wasn’t thinking of knocking over Swedbank, I’d recommend she starts with Barry Forshaw’s guidebook, ‘Nordic Noir’. Forshaw wrote the authorised biography of publishing phenomenon Stieg Larsson. We’ve reassessed Larsson’s legacy (downgrading it a little in the process, I suspect) but there’s much more to explore.
Many readers began with Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck books, then Larsson, so Forshaw explores the legacy of Lisbeth Salander, especially the paradoxical scenes of graphic sexual violence from an author of unquestionable feminist credentials. He also looks at Larsson’s rivals and successors, and the dark power of Nordic prose. If you want to be kept awake at night, I recommend Yrsa Sigurđardóttir’s chilling ‘I Remember You’. Many of these crime novels combine tension with rigorous intelligence.
The TV and film incarnations of Nordic Noir have become highly influential. Recently Krister ‘Wallander’ Henriksson appeared on the West End stage, and ‘The Bridge’ became a smash hit series after fielding a lead character even more messed up than Salander, the hilariously autistic Saga Noren. Although there have been many knock-off local versions, none caught the strangeness of the original series.
You can see influences further afield in series like the French ‘Les Revenants’ (‘The Returned’), now remaking in the US. Other versions of top-of-the-world fiction struggle to capture the blackly comedic mentality of northern countries. I remember landing in Iceland as the pilot announced with a straight face, ‘Please disembark as quickly as possible as our stewardesses have hair appointments.’
Dark humour in crime also chimes with British audiences, who appreciate a streak of cruel humour with their crime, although in our case it’s further confused by the thorny issue of class. Still, it appears that the trend for dark doings in bleak landscapes is set to ripple outwards and continue beyond Mankell and Nesbo.
Finally, a recommendation; ‘Terribly Happy’ is about a Copenhagen cop recovering from a nervous breakdown in a small town and discovering a vipers’ nest worse than anything in the big city. In this sense, it feels like a really good American small-town thriller.