Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The phenomenon

by Jorn Lier Horst, Norway

This weekend I participate at CrimeFest in Bristol. In one of the panels we will talk about Nordic crime. I often end up in such a panel, talking about the phenomenon of Nordic Noir.

CrimeFest in Bristol
Nordic Noir is recent expression, but the Nordic method of telling crime stories is fifty years old. The Swedish novelists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, with their policeman Martin Beck, created a unique genre in the mid-sixties that marked the start of a global literary fairy tale. Their books broke with the established norms of delivering pure entertainment. Social criticism and existential dilemmas were interwoven into the crime format, and the genre distanced itself from other mass-produced formula literature. The distinction between so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ forms of literature became more diffuse, and the crime novel gained admittance to the same market as other serious literary fiction.

In 1991, Henning Mankell wrote his first book about Kurt Wallander, eventually expanding this to a series of novels still making its way triumphantly around the globe. Barely a decade later, the world was introduced to Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist through Stieg Larsson’s outstanding Millenium Trilogy. The English edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sold more than 2.2 million copies in the UK, allocating it thirteenth place in the list of bestselling books ever in that country. Since then, this success has been crowned by Jo Nesbo’s impressive breakthrough with millions of books sold in almost fifty countries.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Mankell, Larsson and Nesbo are authors who, over a long period and at various points in time, have written books of exceptional quality, thus opening the doors to Nordic crime for the rest of the world.

In addition to the authors have a number of different participants contributed to the phenomenon:  publishers, literary agents, critics, enthusiasts and an enormous marketing apparatus have worked together to create increased interest in crime literature from the Nordic countries, ensuring that Nordic Noir has become an expression not only widely recognised but also with real resonance. However, everyone who works with books is aware that enthusiasm and generous marketing budgets do not in themselves create the big bestsellers. In order for a book to become a worldwide phenomenon, something else has to happen: each and every individual reader has to become passionate about it. They have to recommend the book to their aunt, their neighbour, and their workmate. And in order for that to happen, the reading experience has to be more than sheer entertainment.



  1. You are so right, Jørn: word of mouth is the most valuable support an author can receive.

    I'd also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the birthday of the late Leighton Gage, who was responsible for the founding of Murder is Everywhere. He was a special man, writer, and friend. I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say we miss him more than words can convey.

  2. Jorn, did you know that Scandi crime fiction is affectionately known as 'Staring Out The Window Crime Fiction.' It's a reference to the detective having a good think about it !!

  3. Ah, so sorry, Jørn, that I'll be missing you and my other great friends in Bristol this year. Please extend my best wishes to all and perhaps Stan can rally those of us who count ourselves as part of his Sunshine Noir crew to make it over next year.

    And speaking of sunshine, that surely was what Leighton brought to all blessed to know him. Happy birthday, big guy.