Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Secret of Nordic Noir

A couple of weeks ago, I was the moderator of a panel at the wonderful Crimefest convention in Bristol, England.  One of the pleasures of being a moderator - and certainly one of the main reasons I so enjoy being one - is that I get to read books I probably wouldn't come across.  This year was no exception.

Today I have the great pleasure of introducing to you another terrific writer from Scandinavia - Jørn Lier Horst from the land of one of my grandmothers - Norway.  The book I read and thoroughly enjoyed was CLOSED FOR WINTER - the seventh of nine stories featuring William Wisting, chief inspector of police and head of the Criminal Investigation department at Larvik police station.  As with so many of the Scandinavian stories, not only is there an interesting and entertaining mystery to solve, but there is also an undertone of important social issues.

Jørn knows what he writes about because he, too, was a police officer, a Senior Investigating Officer.

Today he is widely recognized as one of Norway´s premier crime writers, and is the recently winner of the Glass Key award for the best Nordic Crime Novel. He made his debut in 2004 with a novel based on a true murder story. 

One of the things that struck me about Jørn as a panelist was how thoughtful his responses were both to my questions and to those from the audience.  It is clear that he took his job as a policeman very seriously, and now approaches his job as a writer in the same vein.

I highly recommend his books and am sure you will enjoy them as much as I did.

His website is

Before I ask you to welcome Jørn to Murder is Everywhere, I have to show you some pictures of his home country.  I just can't resist.

Stan - Thursday

Four months ago, I found myself sitting at a roadside tea stall in Jaipur, India. As the noise and smells assailed me, it felt quite natural to ask: what on earth am I doing here? What are my books doing here? All the way from a small country called Norway, to a large continent called India!

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2014 was just one of the planned stops on my spring tour, where one of the themes — Crime and Punishment — focused on Nordic crime fiction. This genre’s enormous impact is paradoxical: the Nordic countries, decidedly among the most peaceful and secure places on the globe, have produced writers who have captivated readers the world over with their depictions of brutality and murder. I’m not the only one to wonder how that could have come about. What’s the secret of Nordic Noir?

In my increasingly frequent encounters with foreign readers of crime fiction, I believe I’ve come closer to an answer to that enigma. Nordic crime novels are usually considered more sophisticated than, for example, American thrillers. Readers comment that they have found our crime novels to be more than just narratives about crime. They are fascinated by what we might call ‘Nordic melancholy’, concocted from winter darkness, midnight sun, and immense, desolate landscapes. The taciturn, slightly uncommunicative heroes are lone wolves living in a barren, cold part of the world, constantly on an uncompromising pursuit of truth and clarity. What’s more, the entire idea of paradise lost is a prominent feature of Nordic crime: the social-democratic efficient society attacked from within by violence, corruption and homicide.

As far as Nordic crime heroes are concerned, I believe they are primarily distinguished by their single-mindedness and their rebellion against authority in all its facets. In addition, a great deal of space is given to the protagonist’s private life. In a crime series, readers can follow their heroes through different phases as they age and alter.

The numerous Nordic small towns presented as scenes of literary murders do not perhaps provide obvious settings for crime stories. The beautiful scenery inspires picturesque enticing descriptions of nature. But the attraction lies in the contrast between these peaceful small-town communities in their attractive settings and the brutal violent action taking place there.

The authors too are drawing attention to a social system that makes promises about protection and inclusion, but nevertheless fails many of its citizens. The crime novel has proved to be an excellent tool for revealing corruption in society, greed and misuse of power. The best Nordic crime writers use their work as an instrument of social criticism to create a new political awareness in their readers. Their stories wrest us from complacent notions of our society’s excellence and instead plant seeds of unease that makes it difficult to accept current conditions and increasingly forces us to modify our view of those who turn to crime, why they do so and what motivates them.

This characteristic of Nordic crime novels gives them a special earnestness, distinguishing them from other genre fiction and ensuring that their readers do not forget the book’s content and import after the final page is read.

The expression Nordic Noir is recent, but the Nordic method of telling crime stories is almost 50 years old. In the mid-1960s, novelists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö marked the start of a unique genre with their policeman Martin Beck. Their books broke the established norms of pure entertainment. Social criticism and existential dilemmas were interwoven into the crime format, and the distinction between so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ forms of literature became more diffuse. 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 and eventually expanded this to a series still making its way triumphantly around the globe. Barely a decade later came Stieg Larsson’s outstanding Millenium Trilogy. This success has been crowned by Jo Nesbo’s impressive breakthrough with millions of books sold in almost 50 countries.

Nordic crime novels vary when it comes to description of landscape, characters, language, plot and action but are regarded as relatively uniform by the readers, as the writers share a common history and tradition, and have several external features in common as far as social structure, welfare, political system and values are concerned.

So to answer the question: Why has Nordic crime fiction made such a powerful international impact? These novels possess the ability to imitate real life with originality and elegance, with linguistic precision and psychological depth while simultaneously telling an exciting and compelling story.

Thank you.


  1. A most compelling explanation of a literary phenomenon. I agree with much of what you say, Jorn, even though I'm a warmer climes crime guy myself :)

  2. I once heard 'Nordic Noir' described as 'Staring out the window crime fiction.' It was meant as a compliment - just a moment in a novel to reflect on the bigger world outside before getting on with the 'case in hand.'

  3. I always thought the Noir of Nordic Noir was either a misnomer or a pun. Much of what I read described as 'noir' is violent - usually physically, but sometimes psychologically. Yet much of what I read in Nordic Noir is not as violent, but more sophisticated and contemplative. Hence the possibility of the misnomer. On the other hand, noir could refer to the long, dark nights of Scandinavia, rather than the contents of the books! Whatever! There are many excellent mysteries in the northern cold.

  4. Well thought out, well stated, Jørn, just like much of the Nordic crime fiction. Thanks!

  5. Thank you for such a riveting post. Whatever the reasons, and you've laid out several, Nordic noir is popular among global crime fiction readers.

    I wish that more U.S. readers would read globally, and see what terrific books are available to them.

    And thanks for those beautiful photos, which make me want to book tickets to Oslo immediately!

  6. I am hanging back here because, I know only a smattering of Nordic crime fiction. I am willing to accept that there may be more introspection and attention to social ills in Nordic mysteries, but I find those qualities in many writers who are not from the now peaceable precincts of the former Viking marauders. It may be me and my knee-jerk sensitivity to stereotyping, but it looks to me as if the underlying argument stems from the fact that we don't expect Norwegians to ever be violent. And it is the contrast with our expectations that makes Nordic noir so surprisingly entertaining. Introspection is, for sure, a key part of many of the Scandinavian fictional detectives, but I find it also in the characters of Donna Leon, Zoe Sharp, Tim Hallinan and Lisa Brackman. And there are plenty of in-depth discussions of social ills in the books of Leighton Gage, Messrs Trollip and Sears, Jeff Siger, as well as in the works of aforementioned phenomenons. Just sayin'

  7. I am a great fan of Scandinavian mysteries. I also think the Norwegian fjords are among the most magnificent sights in the world. I once had the idea of taking the mail boat up the coast of Norway in winter when light on the snow would allow me to see trolls and huldres, the real hall of the mountain king. But my husband and other friends told me I was mad. Who knows?

    I almost have apoplectic fits when Stieg Larsson is featured on a book jacket in order to sell another Scandinavian author.

    When the MWA and CWA and Keating published their lists of the 100 best mysteries, the first of the Martin Beck series, ROSEANNA, was cited by all of them (it is also my favorite in that series). But I would argue that of all ten books in the series, it has the least amount of social criticism. It is interesting to ponder whether it is the absence of what dominates the later books that made it a favorite. I'd love to discuss this with someone familiar with the series but so far have not had the opportunity.