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“Maybe there is something specifically Scandinavian that comes out of the long, dark winters -- you have to learn to laugh at misery, in a way.”
– Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård

In tribute to the cold winter season, this month we’ll be looking at a genre that is primarily set in the cold, dark north – Nordic Noir. Nordic Noir, also sometimes known as Scandinavian Noir or Scandi Noir, is a subgenre of crime fiction. It’s set in Scandinavian or Nordic countries, and generally tells the story from the perspective of the police or investigator. These books tend to employ plain, clear, and direct language without much metaphor, are set in a harsh landscape, have an overall dark mood, and feature a raw and gritty plot. The genre often shows the dichotomy between the apparently sober and bland social outward appearance in Nordic countries, and the murder, misogyny, rape, and racism it depicts as lying underneath.

Nordic Noir novels are police procedurals, focusing on the day-to-day work of police, and often involving the simultaneous investigation of several crimes. They typically feature cynical and morose detectives (often with a mysterious or painful past) who are beaten down by life, work and their own weaknesses, rather than shiny, optimistic heroes. Due to this, the protagonists’ lives can cast a light on the flaws of society, which are beyond the crimes they’re investigating. The crime itself may be linked to the dark underbelly of society. An example of this would be the Norwegian film Insomnia, which features crime-solving linked to the decline of the Nordic welfare state.

Hallmarks of Nordic Noir include a dark and gloomy look (in the case of TV/movies) or feel, a slow and melancholic pace, violent crimes, and multi-layered storylines. The stories often feature a mix of bleak realism and grim locations, with a sense that bad things can (and will) happen in such a setting. The works also owe significantly to Scandinavia's political system in which the apparent equality, social justice, generous welfare programs, and liberalism of the Nordic model is seen to cover up dark secrets and hidden hatreds. Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, for example, deals with misogyny and rape, while Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers focuses on Sweden’s failure to integrate its immigrant population.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were early pioneers of Nordic Noir in the 1960s and 1970s with their Martin Beck novels. The couple broke with traditional trends in crime fiction and pioneered a new style. They realized that crime novels could be a framework for social criticism and a critical perspective on Swedish society. They were strongly influenced by American writer Ed McBain and his hard-boiled books about the 87th Precinct. However, it was not until Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2005, that Nordic Noir truly found a worldwide audience. Today, perhaps the most popular writer in this genre is Jo Nesbø, whose main character is the ultimate anti-hero who is a periodic binge drinker and firmly opposed to authority.

The genre has become very popular for a number of reasons. First, there is a strong focus on social and political criticism. People from other parts of the world are very curious about Scandinavian politics and social problems and find it interesting to see the societal hypocrisy, where dark prejudices and hatreds lurk beneath the egalitarian surface. The second reason is that there is a strong focus on setting, with the exotic Nordic landscape and unforgiving climate that is unfamiliar to outside readers. The stark landscape and ever-present cold add to a mood that feels oppressive, isolating and filled with easily buried secrets. Finally, many books in this genre feature strong women, which makes them more appealing to women readers.

For additional information on this genre, you can watch Nordic Noir, part of The Great Courses Series: The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction on Kanopy. Or visit the library and check out books or movies/TV shows about crime in the land of endless nights and the midnight sun!