Who Killed Nordic Noir? | Public Books


We begin, as usual, with a dead body. In April 2020 an 84-year-old Swedish woman died in the happily unsuspicious circumstances of old age. Her name was Maj Sjöwall. But to readers of a certain dark bent, she was “the godmother of Nordic noir,” beloved for her creation of a new kind of detective novel. With her partner Per Wahlöö (who died in 1975), Sjöwall wrote the 10-volume Martin Beck series: a set of novels, published between 1965 and 1975, that attempted to map the whole of Swedish society through the ostensibly conservative form of the police procedural.

These were crime novels that dared to be boring. The protagonist Martin Beck—unlike the cynical demigod detectives of American hard-boiled noir—suffered from constant colds, worked on a team rather than alone, and spent most of his time on the job combing through stacks of paper. Patiently realist and sociologically astute, the Martin Beck books presented crime as emanating not from individual pathology but from rips in Sweden’s tightly stitched social fabric. Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Beck series laid the foundations for one of contemporary literature’s most dominant popular forms: the Scandinavian crime novel.

The Martin Beck books were thoughtful works of art disguised as mass entertainment. In the novels, political critique drew warmth from lovable characters; passages of austere description heightened suspense. This marriage of the realistic and the thrilling, the political and the popular, turns out to have been a fragile achievement. Much has changed since Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s idealistic beginnings. The Scandinavian crime novel has all but abandoned the artistic and political aspirations that once served as the genre’s bedrock.

When “Nordic noir” exploded onto the global literary scene around the time of the financial crisis, the genre did so not in the mode of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s realism but in a new key of ultraviolence. In the atmosphere of ambient unrest that accompanied the plunging markets, an inked-up, chain-smoking hacker named Lisbeth Salander burst into world literature, her face piercings glinting. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) inaugurated a hunger among readers for tales featuring torture chambers, comeuppance against rapists, and snowy landscapes drenched in gore. Publishers, too, smelled blood. A wave of translations ensued, primarily from Sweden but quickly encompassing writers from Norway, Denmark, and (less so) Iceland and Finland.

In short order, the quiet ambition of the Martin Beck books yielded so thoroughly to a more bombastic style—exemplified by Larsson—that Scandinavian noir was soon identified in the public imagination with mutilation, crimes against children, and graphically rendered sexual violence. Authorial sadism was part of the appeal.

Is the Scandinavian crime novel alive and at large? Or is it lying dead, tongue swollen, behind a locked door?

The time has come to ask what lies ahead for Scandinavian noir, and whether Sjöwall’s passing marks the end of an era. Since its origins in the 1960s, the genre’s visibility and violence have increased. Yet its excellence has faded, and its commercial success seems to be falling off. No great artistic practitioner of Nordic noir has emerged since Henning Mankell, whose 1990s-era series following the moody, introspective policeman Kurt Wallander offers both intelligent rumination on Swedish national identity and a complex portrait of the protagonist’s troubled interior. As for sales, Larsson has come to look like an anomalously titanic figure, with more than 100 million copies of his Salander books sold worldwide. Jo Nesbø, the most successful living author in this genre, has by comparison sold about 40 million copies across more than a dozen novels—spectacular numbers on the order of Mankell, but trending downward; Nesbø’s latest installment, Knife (2019), has sold just over 30,000 print copies in the United States since coming out a year and a half ago.

A mystery of our own, then. Is the Scandinavian crime novel alive and well, at large in some modest disguise—flinging chum and straining at the ropes on a fishing vessel beyond the fjords? Or is it lying dead, tongue swollen, behind a locked door? And if the latter: Who killed Nordic noir?

Let us line up our suspects along the wall: profit-seeking publishers, comfort-craving readers, cynical authors, savvy television producers. (Investigators have already dismissed one possible perpetrator—the critic—as incapable of such a deed, though possibly guilty of negligence.)

Let me place three clues, all books, on the table. (Document-deluged Martin Beck would nod wearily in approval.) Most crucial is a report by the critic Wendy Lesser called Scandinavian Noir (2020). Although crime is the best-selling class of fiction, and although Scandinavian novels have for years dominated this genre, Lesser’s book is the first account of Nordic noir to penetrate beyond the academic cloister. Adding to Lesser’s picture are two recent acclaimed Scandinavian murder mysteries: Nesbø’s Knife and M. T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family (2019). Nesbø’s shows the genre at its most theatrical; Edvardsson’s, at its most sterile.

Together these books illustrate a literary tradition ground to bits by the gears of the international market.


The commercial genre we now know as Nordic noir, with its lurid covers gleaming on racks in airports and discount stores, began as an exercise in applied Marxism. With time, however, Nordic noir has hardened into a more conservative form, concerned less with subtly diagnosed social determinants of violence than with grotesque villains, lone-wolf detectives, and bloody retribution.

In the Martin Beck series that started it all, Marx literally gets the last word. In the final scene of the series, a group of characters are playing a Scrabble-like word game while lamenting the violence seething across the Western world. Beck’s trusted colleague Kollberg sets down a letter that spells doom for the game but hope for the society: “I say X—X as in Marx.”

Scandinavia has long been a lodestar for the left—a template for humane politics. The region’s crime fiction reveals unexpected cruelties inside the social-democratic utopia, like spidery cracks etched across a snow globe. Mankell’s novels, for example, track the swelling racism that accompanied the rise of asylum seekers in Sweden in the 1980s and 1990s. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, dyed-in-the-wool Marxists both, conceived their Martin Beck books as a social panorama that would—like Stendhal’s mirror carried along a muddy highway—reveal the inadequacies of the Swedish welfare state. Giving the last word to Marx was the point.

Yet Nordic noir can lend succor to cynics as well as to idealists. The genre shows readers in southern Europe, the United States, and elsewhere that those irritatingly progressive Nordic nations aren’t so perfect after all (despite outranking nearly every other country on most quality-of-life indicators).

In the 1960s it was fashionable for American conservatives to cite Sweden’s high suicide rate as evidence that an overbearing welfare state sapped citizens of a sense of purpose. In that period the exquisitely anguished films of Ingmar Bergman (Mankell’s father-in-law, incidentally) were, together with minimalist furniture, the region’s most prominent cultural exports. Now, as then, Scandinavia presents to the world a Janus-faced countenance, with black metal, crime fiction, and the films of Lars von Trier competing with wool socks, scented candles, and other hygge lifestyle products.

In her celebration of Scandinavian noir, Lesser refuses the narrative of Nordic nihilism, as well as the counternarrative of smiling blonde children in pigtails; she is capable of finding coziness in the slasher novels, menace in the wool socks. But the pleasure she takes in Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian mysteries is essentially escapist. In these novels, murderers face prison sentences of, at most, 12 to 14 years; police officers rarely carry guns and are offered coffee and pastries by the witnesses they interview. Even the darkest Nordic fiction offers flashes of reprieve from an America grown increasingly brutal. And so Lesser has written a gentle, friendly book about some of the most sadistic literature ever to go mainstream.

Scandinavian Noir is a study of the Scandinavian temperament, of manners and mores as grasped through the looking-glass world of crime fiction. The book’s virtuosic first half draws on hundreds of novels to present an efficient survey of the genre’s conventions and obsessions. Lesser proceeds alphabetically—from “alcohol” (omnipresent in Nordic crime novels and always as a danger) to “zealous” (as in the opportunistic journalists who regularly harass the detective-heroes). She observes patterns ranging from the disturbing to the mundane: a fear of unleashed female sexuality; a penchant for art-collecting in middle-class homes; complaints about bureaucratic red tape; the sheer amount of time these characters spend on holiday. Each feature unlocks some aspect of Nordic culture.

Lesser interprets the elaborate descriptions of domestic interiors in Nordic noir, for example, as deriving from the quintessentially Scandinavian emphasis on cozy household life. One Martin Beck book opens with more than a page devoted to a room’s discolored floral wallpaper and wooden chairs before Sjöwall and Wahlöö pull our gaze downward to the dead body on the floor.

Now, a critic could explain all these descriptions of furnishings and dwelling places by appealing to literature rather than life. One place where the descriptive naturalism of Émile Zola ended up, after all, is the police procedural, with its specialized world of work and attention to seedy locations and milieus. Lesser is not uninterested in literary history. But she is up to something riskier and more idiosyncratic: showing how we as readers can come to know a remote region through its fiction.

Lesser’s affection for the earlier Swedish writers leads her to overstate the merits of today’s Nordic noir.

Fiction offers an intimate but inevitably distorted guide to reality. So the book’s second half offers a corrective in the form of travelogue. When the memoirist Edmund Gosse visited Scandinavia in the 1870s, he concluded that “the Swede is, surely, the human blackbird, with his copious, rich, and liquid voice”; at a guesthouse in Copenhagen he marveled at a tank of salt water in which fish for the table were “swimming and fattening.” In her journey to Scandinavia, Lesser adopts a similarly wide-eyed persona. Although she records a 21st-century world, her impressions are appealingly redolent of 19th-century travel narrative.

Fed by fiction, Lesser thrills to communal laundry rooms and tile stoves. This posture of naiveté, deepened by a shift, à la Henry Adams, to third-person voice, keeps the reader’s focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of Scandinavia. Yet this tactic effectively rules out the self-interrogation and emotional complexity that make Lesser’s earlier essays in The Amateur (1999) and Room for Doubt (2007) so compelling.

Lesser’s study is appreciative, aimed in part at convincing readers to give higher regard to a seemingly frivolous genre. So she avoids condemning the present state of Nordic noir, even while she reserves her warmest praise for Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Mankell. I think we need more sophisticated appreciation, not less, in contemporary literary criticism. But Lesser’s affection for the earlier Swedish writers leads her to overstate the merits of today’s Nordic noir.

Indeed, her book casts a sheen of fantasy over both the Scandinavian crime genre and the frozen lands that inspired it. As we watch Lesser interview murder detectives (many of them female, unlike in the novels) and walk through museums, we begin to notice that, for our heroine, the region’s fiction has a much more solid reality than the spires of Stockholm or the gleaming surface of the Baltic Sea. Literature can augment reality; it can also supplant it.


At the very center of English literature is a work of art we might describe as Nordic noir avant la lettre. The moody detective sets about solving a murder—a case of poisoning—but finds himself tangled in a conspiracy. A man is stabbed; a woman’s corpse is heaved out of a river. The final scene is slippery with Danish blood.

Although no modern work of Scandinavian noir rises to the level of Hamlet, it would be silly to dismiss the entire genre as subliterary. The novels of Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Mankell show that this minor and largely commercial mode can satisfy standards of artistic excellence. And while writers with blatant political agendas often produce dull or condescending popular art, in these cases the authors’ politics—Sjöwall/Wahlöö’s Marxism, Mankell’s cosmopolitanism—enliven a staid genre with moral intelligence.

To move from Mankell to a novel like M. T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family, then, is to see in disheartening fashion how a once-promising genre sold its political edge and psychological interest in exchange for comfortable formulas.

The nearly normal family of the title comprises a father (a troubled preacher), a mother (an ambitious lawyer), and a rebellious teenage daughter accused of stabbing a man to death. The story is told in three parts, with each family member getting a turn at narration.

All three voices are flat and unconvincing. For stylistic flourish, the novel offers trite symbolism (a family photograph framed in cracked glass) and vapid similes (“My memories of the rape are sharp as knives; the images clear as glass”). The austere and direct writing that is a hallmark of Nordic noir is here reduced to a second-grade reading level. (Edvardsson’s previous books are for “young readers,” according to his author page.) Throughout, the novel’s emotional tenor is that of a Lifetime movie, complete with a preacher-father who thinks such thoughts as: “My mind turned to Job. Was this my trial?”

One characteristically inane moment occurs during the daughter’s murder trial, when the prosecutor is quizzing the accused about whether the dead man’s relationship with her best friend was “platonic.” “Plato is my favorite philosopher,” the daughter says. “I’ve always preferred Socrates, myself,” the prosecutor replies, nonsensically.

Edvardsson’s novel, though not pleasant to read, is instructive in that its mere existence points to the unsavory incentive structures in place for authors and publishers of Scandinavian fiction. It is unthinkable that such a banal novel would be translated and promoted in the United States—where reviewers have given it modest but positive attention—were it not attached, however loosely, to the Nordic noir trend.

This international market for Scandinavian murder mysteries exerts a centrifugal force not just on publishers but on authors. If I were a writer of books for “young readers” in Sweden, I too would pivot to crime fiction. If Edvardsson’s book is any indication, the pivot would be easy: all one must do is add a dollop of superficial feminism, à la Stieg Larsson, with a storyline about a rape victim—here, the rebellious daughter—claiming her bloody revenge. (The juvenile prose style could remain unchanged.)

The attitude driving such techniques is best described not as feminism but as opportunism. The Danish critic Morten Høi Jensen told me in an email: “Whatever high-minded politics they may lay claim to, Scandinavian crime fiction—to my mind—is just writing with the hope of landing a movie or TV deal.”

Jo Nesbø’s Knife, by contrast, offers a case of aesthetic success within a limited mode, even while it shows, with a certain flamboyance, how Nordic noir has devolved from the social criticism of Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Mankell into bubble-gum entertainment. For their part, the Sjöwall/Wahlöö mysteries emphasized teamwork, the patient sifting of evidence, and the role of chance, rather than pure malignity, in the commission of violent deeds. The Nesbø books, meanwhile, feature a single detective—a lone-wolf antihero in the style of American noir—facing off against supervillains and receiving scant help from a corrupt Oslo police department.

Harry Hole is a brilliant Oslo policeman, who moonlights as a cantankerous alcoholic. Early in Knife, the 12th installment in Nesbø’s Hole series, Hole wakes up with a wretched hangover, covered in blood. He has no memory of the previous night. But during his blacked-out hours, his wife, from whom he was temporarily estranged, was stabbed to death in her home. Before Hole can find the killer, he has to rule out the primary suspect—himself.

Indeed, Knife jettisons the formal criminal-justice process entirely. Barred from investigating his wife’s death and temporarily suspended from the force, Hole spends the entire novel rogue; his methods include the torture of a suspect. (The suspect is supervillain Svein Finne, a serial rapist and murderer obsessed with spreading his seed. So the reader is meant, it seems, to approve of the torture—one instance of Nesbø’s many moral simplifications.) The mystery is resolved with the extrajudicial execution, by sniper rifle, of one antagonist and the suicide of another.

Politically, then, Knife exemplifies how far right Nordic noir has tacked since the days of Martin Beck. The Norwegian criminal system, famed for its restorative-justice approach, is too soft: the reader demands the aesthetic satisfaction of the death penalty. Knife, with its vigilante ethic, displays a Scandinavian genre grown Americanized.

Nordic noir can be at once artistically and financially successful, but, in the end, commercialism has won out.

Although Nesbø’s novels are strewn with nefarious right-wing fanatics, his analysis of crime is resolutely psychological rather than sociological. His villains usually act out of pathologies stemming from their wounded masculinity.

In Nesbø’s universe, disturbed men have two routes for asserting their manliness: they can kill, or they can father children. Thus the Harry Hole novels are filled with men who are morbidly obsessed with passing on their genetic material, punishing women for perceived looseness, or are mired more generally in daddy issues. (Nesbø’s own father fought for the Nazis during World War II, an inheritance the author has explored in a standalone thriller, The Son.) One cuckolded killer in Knife is pushed over the edge by a Mark Greif essay dissecting the compensatory masculinity of hipsters.

Nesbø is a master of the feint; he serves up—and selectively withholds—key details so as to make us throw our suspicions behind one person, then another, then a third, before he reveals that all three are false trails. His deliberately misleading maneuvers grow predictable but are never wholly devoid of appeal. A Nesbø novel is a circus in which the wires and stagehands are visible and the sets are made of cardboard. Readers who come to Nordic noir for these maximalist theatrics would be bored by Martin Beck’s runny nose.

Although Nesbø has what Edvardsson doesn’t—a vivid imagination—his work offers an even clearer example of how Scandinavian noir has hardened into a predictable and cynically commercial genre. Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Mankell showed that Nordic noir can be at once artistically and financially successful, but, in the end, commercialism has won out. Hopes for movie and television deals, pressure from publishers to conform to type, and the demands of an international audience that cares little about political dynamics in Sweden or Norway have each, in turn, plunged a knife into this offbeat literary tradition.

It is poignant, though not surprising, that a literary form pioneered by Marxists has been corrupted so thoroughly by the demands of the market that the genre’s original literary and political aspirations now seem irrecoverable. Perhaps an author will come along who proposes a return to realism, to sociological mapping, to an analysis of how crime exposes a society’s fault lines. The prospect seems unlikely. Indeed, if Scandinavian noir has a future, that future probably lies in the direction one inch beyond Nesbø—that is, in television.

 

This article was commissioned by Annie Galvinicon



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