The glint of blood on snow, the shattering of social order, or just the clothes: why does the world love Nordic tales of murder?by John Banville / June 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia in The Bridge, the latest and perhaps the most violent of Scandinavia’s crime dramas
A recent New Yorker cartoon nicely illustrates the case. A publisher and her author, both plainly American, sit in the publisher’s office, at the publisher’s desk, with the manuscript of the author’s latest novel between them. The publisher is enthusing over the work, declaring it a clever, well-plotted and fast-paced thriller—“only,” she says, “now can you make it Scandinavian?”
Nordic noir began, they say, with the ten books that the writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö published, at the rate of one a year, over the decade between 1965 and 1975. These two left-wing authors were determined to show the falsity of the Swedish dream, which according to them allowed their complacently slumbering country to ignore the poverty, underprivilege and heartsickness endemic among its broad underclass. Their protagonist, the dour and sometimes anguished detective Martin Beck, is the first in a long line of Scandinavian police heroes, notably Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, but he is also a forerunner of Smilla Jasperson, the alienated heroine of Peter Høeg’s 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow— published by that genius among publishers, Christopher MacLehose, the godfather, if not more, of Scandinavian crime fiction in English—and Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative journalist who is the foil to the feral Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Indeed, Beck may be the grandfather of the dragon-girl herself.
The difference between the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series, published in what already seems a vanished age, and books by Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, as well as the Scandinavian television series The Killing and The Bridge, is that there is at the heart of the more recent works a deep crevasse of angst, of existential helplessness and sorrow, which the two pioneering Marxist writers, despite their sense of general social alienation, would never have allowed themselves to stumble into. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were out to change society; their successors gaze upon their world—our world—and despair.