Select one of the keywords
A Renaissance of Nordic Noir
by Hilary Williamson (October 2012)

'Whatever our theme in writing, it is old and tried. Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can
be new; but that is enough.
' (Eudora Welty, from The Writer's Quotation Book)

I thoroughly enjoyed Smilla's Sense of Snow by Danish author Peter Hoeg in the 90's. Otherwise Nordic mysteries were not much on my reading radar until their recent North American renaissance. It seems that every time I turn around now I stumble across another excellent Scandinavian mystery. They're often on the dark side (perhaps a legacy of those endless winter nights) and tend to share a quirky humor that's just a little different from the North American or British blend.

Let's begin with a posthumous North American debut that many will argue is the best of the best, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, set in Stockholm, Sweden. Tim Davis calls it 'a dramatic, powerful, literate, complex, provocative, unique, and exciting mystery.' It's the first (followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest) in the Millennium Trilogy, whose submission for publication in Europe was (sadly) followed closely by the author's death in 2004. The books have been made into both European and N. American movies.

Next (and my personal favorite) has to be Jo Nesb°'s superlative series starring alcoholic loner, Crime Squad Police Inspector Harry Hole. Most episodes are set in Oslo, Norway. After reading the latest, Phantom, I finally got my hands on the first book (The Bat, set in Australia) and recommend reading in order now that they're all available in North America. Harry is a brilliant detective whose personal demons make him his own worst enemy. I am addicted to Nesb°'s intricate, wheels-within-wheels plotting, trademark play on title words, sleight of hand misdirection, and the fascinating themes he incorporates into each episode (which steadily darken over time).

Coninuing to Reykjavik, Iceland, Arnaldur Indri­ason's committed, highly intuitive Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is another compelling lead. The series began with Tainted Blood (also published as Jar City) and the latest I have read is Outrage. The detective is obsessed by his brother's mysterious death when they were young. His daughter is a drug addict and his son an alcoholic. Both make occasional demands of - and overtures to - their father. Tim Davis feels that this author, 'has masterfully succeeded in a paradoxical fusion of sadness and joy, despair and hope, and wretchedness and beauty.' I would add that Indri­ason delivers a subtle mystery in all the shades of grey - never jump to conclusions when reading his excellent work.

A recent (and most welcome) discovery for me is Jussi Adler-Olsen's quirky Department Q series, starring pigheaded Detective Carl M°rck in Copenhagen, Denmark. The episodes available to us so far are The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Absent One. M°rck struggled with guilt and depression after he survived a shooting that left one colleague dead and the other a paraplegic. He was assigned Department Q, responsible for the coldest cases, with one assistant (unusual immigrant Assad) and a basement office. This highly recommended series is an odd yet effective mixture of horrific thriller (the cold cases) and amusing cozy (Carl and Assad's antics).

I consider these the best of the best of Nordic noir but there are plenty of other excellent series that are well worth reading, the majority set in Sweden. Henning Mankell's books featuring Ystad detective Kurt Wallander are well known, with episodes like Faceless Killers that are not for the faint-hearted. Hakan Nesser's Inspector Van Veeteren stories - for example, The Inspector and Silence - are thorough, well plotted police procedurals with a unique, intuitive lead. And Camilla Lńckberg's popular series opens with The Ice Princess. It's set in the Swedish fishing village/resort town of Fjńllbacka, and features detective Patrik Hedstr÷m and writer Erica Falck.

Kjell Eriksson gives us unusual crimes with convoluted resolutions in mysteries like The Hand That Trembles, starring homicide Inspector Ann Lindell. K. O. Dahl's Detective Inspector Frank Fr°lich of Oslo stars in complex, dark and powerful stories such as The Fourth Man. Leif GW Persson combines police politics with international intrigue in mysteries including Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End. Per Wahloo & Maj Sjowall team up to write mesmerizing Martin Beck procedurals like The Man on the Balcony. And Asa Larsson offers gripping thrillers like Sun Storm, involving flawed characters, including her indomitable heroine, attorney Rebecka Martinsson.

In Norway, Harry Hole's peers include Anne Holt's multi-dimensional crimesolving duo (intuitive police Inspector Adam Stubo and brilliant profiler Johanne Vik) in episodes such as What Is Mine. And Karin Fossum is a master of the psychological thriller with Inspector Sejer mysteries like When the Devil Holds the Candle. In Denmark, the writing duo of Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis give us a seriously driven heroine with an unusual plot and premise in The Boy in the Suitcase. And there's another good series in Reykjavik, Iceland by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, starring attorney Thˇra Gudmundsdˇttir - the latest is Ashes to Dust.

It's been a real pleasure to share the new and unique visions of so many excellent mystery/thriller authors in far-off places. If you enjoy noir mysteries in northern climes, then pick up some or all of these engrossing and engaging series. And let's hope their translators are busy readying more to send our way.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.