A Brand Apart: Scandinavian Crime Fiction

In July 2009, Slate published an article by Nathaniel Rich which attempted to answer a question which has apparently plagued English-speaking readers for quite some time: “Why do the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide thrillers?” Taking some issue with Rich’s answers to this conundrum, I wrote a response piece for The L Magazine. The debate, while certainly not a new one, did kindle some interest in several corners, including Scandinavian Crime Fiction and Nordic Voices. Both Barbara Fister (for Scandinavian Crime Fiction) and David McDuff (for Nordic Voices) posted their (very different) opinions on the relative merits and perceived problems with the ongoing publishing craze for Scandinavian crime fiction. The exchanges were all rather interesting.

The full text for my piece can be found below or on The L website, here.


Although the Scandinavian crime novel has enjoyed immense popularity in Europe for decades, it has become something of a sensation in the English-speaking world in recent years. Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Arnaldur Indriðason, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbø and myriad others from the Nordic climes have become staples in the diets of mystery aficionados in the U.S. and U.K., but not without a fair amount of bemusement on the part of these readers. After all, how can such a blood-drenched genre flourish in countries whose murder rates frequently fall well below that of Connecticut?

In the wake of the almost unfathomably successful English publication of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and looking forward to the publication of its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire (forthcoming this month), Nathaniel Rich rekindles this debate to somewhat limited effect.

It’s become something of a hobby for avid English-speaking critics to speculate on the prevalence of crime novels from those adorably morbid, and yet — as far as many are concerned — wholly peaceful Scandinavian countries. Multitudes of reviewers have weighed in on what distinguishes these Scandinavian novels from their American and European cousins, pointing to their exotic locations and “sense of the other“, their empathetic and beleaguered detectives, and even Scandinavia’s perceived role as “the world’s Puritan conscience.” And while there’s certainly something to each of these assertions, all in all, they appear to be part of a somewhat idle conversation which simply seeks to engender a bit of pattern recognition: “Hey, there’re awful lot of Swedish (Norwegian/Icelandic/Danish/Finnish) authors being published these days.”

Rich’s main assertion concerns the unique contrast Scandinavian crime novels evoke: heinous crimes occurring against a backdrop of “sublime tranquility… a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness.” (It bears noting that he tends to shorthand “Scandinavia” with “Ikea” — that oh-so-quirky, familiar import which is at once ultra chic and woefully tacky. Stieg Larsson’s depiction of Stockholm is likened to “the Ikea approach-modish design with a side of Swedish meatballs.” In a later passage, he quips that when “goons intrude upon the world of glossy magazines and Ikea, the result is pleasantly discordant.”) For Rich, Larsson’s “novels mark the apotheosis of the genre,” setting themselves apart from their counterparts, which as a whole, depend on “catatonic detectives tramping across frozen tundra.” Larsson, he suggests, “may have provided a new direction for Scandinavian fiction.”

There are a few problems here. For one, while Rich acknowledges a biased perspective, he plays into a rather patronizing stereotype when evoking, yet again, the perceived serenity of the Scandinavian tableau. One need only skim recent headlines from mainland Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) to ascertain that the famed tranquility of the Nordic welfare state has begun to face some dramatic challenges. For instance: each of these countries has seen a marked increase in immigration in the last few decades, an influx which has challenged the homogeneity of the local populations, and more often than not, created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook.

In Denmark, whole debates have been sparked over whether second and third generation immigrants — “New Danes,” as they’ve been dubbed — should “be like everyone else.” Tensions between Danish biker groups (really!) and gangs of immigrant youth frequently bubble over, most recently exemplified in a manifesto published by a group called The Hell’s Angels, which encourages young Danes to rally against “jackals“: those who “hate Danes, the mentality, lifestyle, Christianity and its symbols.” In Sweden, neo-nazi/nationalistic activity has been on the rise since the mid-eighties (not long, one might note, after the as-yet unsolved assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme and anti-immigrant, racist tendencies have also become increasingly prevalent. Norway has seen a similar shift, with popularity for the staunchly nationalistic “Progress Party” growing rapidly — this being the same party which utilized blatantly anti-immigrant scare tactics to gain support during a political campaign, and whose leader recently warned against the risk of “sneak-Islamisation” in Norway.

Secondly, it is misleading for Rich to suggest that Larsson has somehow revolutionized the Scandinavian crime genre. Yes, his novels are “frenzied” and “up to date,” with tech references abounding and peopled with adept hackers and “young leftist do-gooders.” And in their way, these ultra-contemporary elements do heighten the dramatic contrast of extreme violence within a peaceful society. But in essentials, Larsson’s narrative concerns are precisely those of his literary brethren.

More often than not, the gruesome goings-on in Scandinavian crime novels have their root in everyday societal tensions and shortcomings: racial/ethnic/religious prejudices, the marginalization of ‘outsiders,’ governmental corruption, unacknowledged domestic abuse. Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur’s investigation in Silence of the Grave considers social complicity in a particularly grim case of domestic battery; Kerstin Ekman’s Under the Snow and Blackwater both delve into prejudices and tensions between Swedish townspeople and their indigenous Sámi neighbors; Helen Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss and Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole both struggle with neo-Nazi youth gangs; and, of course, Henning Mankell’s exhausted Wallander gets his fair share, too — investigating arson in refugee camps, shutting down underground child prostitution rings, the like. (This implicit social awareness has perhaps become more apparent in contemporary Scandinavian crime novels, but it isn’t actually a particularly recent development in the genre overall: Maj Sjöwall, who created the classic Martin Beck police procedurals with husband Per Wahlöö in the mid-sixties and seventies, recently explained to The Wall Street Journal that in writing the Beck novels, the couple’s “intention was…to describe and criticize certain changes in our society and the politics of that decade.”)

It’s then more accurate to say that Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.

At its heart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not so very different. It is a book about the failure of Swedish society to effectively respond to social ills at all levels. White-collar criminals are treated like celebrities and the press turns a blind eye. Women suffer inordinately at the hands of men in power — government officials, family members, even lovers — and have no recourse but to become vigilantes, protecting themselves where the social system has been utterly impotent. Larsson isn’t reinventing the genre here, he’s tapping into what really sets Scandinavian crime fiction apart. If his take on these themes has brought anything particularly new to the field, it’s misanthropy and cynicism, where there is usually at least a modicum of hope that welfare societies might face their own shortcomings and eventually, overcome them. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Wallander laments at the end of Faceless Killers, guilt-ridden even after a successful investigation. “You kept at it,” his colleague encourages. “You wanted to catch whoever committed those murders… That’s the important thing.”