22 November 2016

Scandinavian Crime Wave - in novels, tv and cinema

I had never sought out fictional crime writing from Scandinavia. Instead I typically focused on crime novels coming from Britain in general, and Scotland in particul­ar. But the emergence of Nordic Noir, in cinemas and on television, changed all that for many fans of crime fiction.

Before I examine my own cautious experience with Scand­inavian crime films, let me start with Nathaniel Rich’s article about Scandinavian murder novels, Why the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide thrillers. Rich concluded that Scandinavia must have been a bleak, ungodly, violent place to live. In Oslo, a serial killer tortured his victims (The Devil's Star), while in Stockholm a stalker terrorised young girls in public parks (The Man on the Balcony). In Henning Mankell novels, the small fishing village of Ystad on Sweden's southern shore suffered: torture and execution of an elderly farming couple (Faceless Kill­ers); bodies floating off the coast in a lifeboat (The Dogs of Riga); impalement of a retired bird-watcher (The Fifth Woman); and a teenager’s self-immolation (Sidetracked).

Fortunately there were more fictional characters murdered every year in the pages of Nordic crime novels than were real people murdered in Scand­inavia itself. The Global Peace Index ranks Denmark and Norway as the most peaceful countries re homicides, with Sweden shortly behind. The Nordic countries also consist­ently rank as the happiest countries in the world. So why do such peace-loving soc­ieties produce best-selling authors like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, authors who wallow in a relentlessly bleak view of their world?

The Swedish-speaking version of Wallender
starring Krister Henrik­sson (left)

Rich’s ultimate explanation was simple - crime novels sell. Before 2006, the only contemporary Scandinavian novelist to enjoy major international success was the Dane Peter Høeg eg his book Smilla's Sense of Snow 1997. If Scandin­avian writers wanted their novel to be read abroad, they had to have at least one murder.

The head of drama at DR (Denmark’s public broadcaster) made another point that may not seem intuitively correct. “For much of the world, Scandinavia is a far-off, exotic region experienced only through stories and photographs. From child­hood, we develop a mental image of these frozen countries that blends Vikings, reindeer, saunas, super hero Thor. We’ve been selling the Scandinavian countries as the place where there is light 24 hours a day, blonde girls with blue eyes and Hans Christian Andersen – but we wanted to show the other side, the underbelly. Nordic noir shatters these illusions”.

The better quest­ion for me was: why did non-Scandinavian readers admire these writers? What distinguished them was their evocation of an almost sub­lime tranquillity. When a crime occurred, it was shocking to out­siders specifically because it disrupted a world that seemed utopian in its happiness and peace. Note that Mankell's corpses tended to turn up in serene, bucolic settings. A dark bloodstain in a Swedish field of pure, white snow was far creepier than a body in a rubbish-littered alley in Los Angeles.

In 2004, Stieg Larsson completed the first three novels of a planned group (just before he died). Larsson was even more adept than Mankell at heightening the contrast between con­temporary Stockholm and the tawdriness of his fictional crimes. His Stockholm managed to be both cosmopolitan and charmingly quaint. Larsson’s characters used modern technology yet the main character, Mikael Blomkvist, was a hard-charging investigative journalist left over from the print age. Dirty corruption in the world of glossy magazines and clean cut Ikea!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2011, 
the film based on Stieg Larsson's book of the same name.

The editors of these crime novels loved the new direction for Scan­­d­inavian fiction. On the cover of 2016 book In the Month of the Mid­night Sun by Cecilia Ekbäck, the publishers wrote “From the acclaimed author of Wolf Winter comes a second brilliantly written and gripping historical Nordic Noir thriller with all the intrigue and atmosphere of Burial Rites, the pent-up passion of The Piano and the suspense of The Tenderness of Wolves”. No noir reference was omitted.


The first films in this genre that I saw were Stieg Larsson’s group of crime novels, later made into full length feature films: The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

The film The Girl Who Played with Fire followed Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant but damaged surveillance agent, as she return­ed to Sweden from abroad. She may have murdered a journalist and his girlfriend, as well as her own legal guardian, Nils Bjurman. Magazine publisher Mikael Blomk­vist had to find her, before the authorities did. In Granada, Salander used her conn­ections among the hackers' network to investigate a corrupt and brutal American, Dr Forbes. Salander saw Dr Forbes on the beach with his wife and realised that the American was going to kill his wife for her in­heritance. Salander attacked Forbes and left him to die in a vicious hurricane. As the mur­d­ers continued, I spent half of this film hiding under the cinema seat.

The plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will clarify how very dark Larsson’s books were. In Dec 2002 the publisher Mikael Blomkvist lost a libel case involving allegations he published about a billion­aire financier. He was sentenced to gaol and a hefty fine. Lisbeth Salan­der was hired by the patriarch of the wealthy Vanger family, to investigate Blomkvist. Vanger then hired Blomkvist to investigate the disap­pear­ance and possible murder of his niece back in 1966.

Sal­an­der, who was rul­ed mentally incompetent as a child, was given a new legal guard­ian, Nils Bjurman. Bjurman was a sexual sadist who beat and raped his charge. Having used a hidden camera to record Bjurman raping her, Salander returned to take her revenge, torturing Bjurman. While watching this film, I spent most of the time hiding under the cinema seat :( It was too brutal to watch.

The Bridge
Bodies were found on the bridge linking Sweden and Denmark

The Bridge (2011) was a crime television series created as a joint Swedish-Danish production, moving largely between Malmö and Copen­hagen. The three series of the show starred Sofia Helin as the Swedish police detective Saga Norén, and her Danish equivalent Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia). Part of the darkness in this programme came from Saga’s Aspergers. She lived alone, picked up sex partners in bars, couldn't empathise with others and appeared cold and blunt. Dead bodies were found on the bridge, in the water and in boats, the results of suicides, murders and terrorism.

The first crime series on tv that I truly enjoyed in Swedish was Wallender. Adapted from Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels, Krister Henrik­sson starred as the Swedish policeman. The stories were set in Ystad where the murders were still grisly and sadistic, but the tv programme wasn’t as ugly as Larsson’s films had been.

Wallander soon became a British television series, also adapted from Swedish Henning Mankell's novels. But the British vers­ion star­red the British actor Kenneth Branagh as the Swedish police­man based in Ystad. I did not think having an entirely English-speaking cast would work since the series was full of Swedish arch­itecture, police cars and uniforms, food, weather and landscapes. But it did.

The most recent tv murder mystery series I loved was the BBC production called Shetland (2011), written by Anne Cleeves. I included it in a discussion of Scandinavian Noir because these Scottish islands had been colonised by the Norwegians for hundreds of years, the land­scapes and brooding skies looked Scandinavian and the characters under-acted as they did in The Bridge. Douglas Henshall was wonderful as the lonely, isolated Detect­ive Inspector Jimmy Perez, as was Alison O'Donnell as Detective Sergeant Alison Tosh MacIntosh.

Detect­ive Inspector Jimmy Perez and Detective Sergeant Alison MacIntosh

The Finnish series Tellus (2015) debuted successfully at home and was immediately exported abroad. With a classic Nordic-Noir feel, the series revolved around a group of young activists who executed a series of eco-motivated sabotages over the past four years. Their first mistake accidentally killed someone and the group needed to make a decision: to stop or become more effective by doing selective murders. The police did not have a single lead. 


Andrew said...

I keep hearing about very good Scandinavian mysteries and political thrillers on SBS. Roll on retirement when I will have time to watch them. I do like crime stories and political thrillers and I have read some great ones set in Europe during WWII, often from a Jewish point of view or a resistance group. Sometimes they were the same.

Tv highlights of this year were Wallander and Broadchurch, which may well have been last year.

Deb said...

Did you see a great program on tv called Borgen? Not a crime series, but definitely Nordic and quite bleak.

Hels said...


if we had this conversation 10 years ago, I would have said "what Scandinavian crime stories and political thrillers?" But now I have semi-retired, I am finding that SBS and Foxtel have heaps of fascinating programmes from the snowy north. My tv watching used to be 75% British and 25% Australian. Now it is British, Australian AND Scandinavian.

"Nordic Noir and Beyond" (http://nordicnoir.tv/tv-series/) mentions The Killing, Borgen, Wallander, The Bridge, Modus, Trapped, Follow The Money, Mammon, Blue Eyes, Witnesses etc etc.

Hels said...


I loved Borgen and watched all three series of the programme.

I was wondering how to fit Borgen into this post. But Nordic Noir and Beyond wrote "following the intricate and complicated lives of politicians, media spinners and the reporters who feed off their triumphs and failures, Borgen uncovers a world of political and personal intrigue". Add dark lighting throughout the series et voila!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I have never seen or read any of these Scandinavian crime stories, but I think that I would prefer traditional types with more conventional crimes and less brutality.

It seems that a lot of detective fiction makes a similar contrast between the sordidness of the crime, and the innocence of an English village, or the refined elegance of a rich library.

Hels said...


I think you are quite right about the contrast between the sordidness of the crimes and the genteel settings in which the crimes traditionally occurred. We might also compare the rather middle aged, gentle, small town, properly dressed Miss Marple with burly, experienced police men.

Perhaps we should exclude modern Scottish crime books from the concept of genteelness. For example Ian Rankin's crimes occurred in the grittier parts of Edinburgh, while Malcolm Mackay set his crimes in the darker parts of Glasgow.

By the way if you are at all sensitive, do not see the three Stieg Larsson films: The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I didn't sleep AT ALL after watching these films :(

LSK said...

Not enough lighting, depressed policemen, mental disturbances, black ugly clothing. Sweden was very different, when I was travelling around.

Hels said...


Very strange. When DR said they had been selling the Scandinavian countries as the place where there is light 24 hours a day, beautiful blonde girls with blue eyes and Hans Christian Andersen, I agreed with that totally. So hy would anyone want to show the dark side, the underbelly, even if there was one?

Deb said...


The girl in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looks sick, vulnerable and exploited in the photo and the tattoo artist looks brutal. When I was in high school my mother warned me about people like that.

Hels said...


It is probable that every society has an ugly underbelly where women are exploited by brutal men, but to see it visually presented in a film was too much for me. I hid :(

Hels said...

It occurred to me watching DCI Banks and Vera that the offices and houses/flats were just as dark as they were in the Scandinavian police shoes, regardless of whether it was night or day, summer or winter. Vera is set in Newcastle (55 N), which has the same latitude as Copenhagen (55.6 N) and DCI Banks is set in North Yorkshire!

Graeme Blundell said...

Midnight Sun, the high concept Euro thriller, is intriguing, austere and beautiful. It's the most expensive Nordic drama made, its creators also responsible for The Bridge which has been shown in 160 countries.

In the small mining community in remote northern Sweden, where the summer sun never sets, a French homicide detective of Algerian Berber origins (Kahina Zadi) investigates the brutal murder of a French citizen. It is 257 km north of the polar circle. With the help of a Swedish investigator of the indigenous Sami community, Zadi finds herself facing new killings that also seem to involve a heavy-duty machine of one kind or another. Political, environmental and indigenous concerns are plaited into the complex plot.

Graeme Blundell
SBS On Demand
The Australian, 17th-18th Dec 2016

Hels said...

Thank you.

Let me say that the men in my family really did think your review showed Midnight Sun to be intriguing, austere and beautiful. I did not.