Nordic Noir crime fiction first blossomed into global consciousness with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series back in 2006. Since then, Nordic tales of gruesome murder cases have become a popular cultural product. Take, for instance, the widely praised TV series, The Killing. The Danish drama, despite the inclusion of subtitles, had UK viewers hooked back in 2009. Then in 2010, it won an Emmy for Best International TV Series. By 2012, the show’s third season drew in over one million viewers with its debut episode.
Then, of course, there's also the slew of Nordic Noir movie adaptations, like 2012’s The Hunt (Jagten). The Danish film was a box office smash, grossing over $16 million.
2011’s Headhunters (a remake of Hodejegerne, a novel by Jo Nesbø) also made over $15 million in sales. People can’t seem to get enough of moody Scandi Noir plotlines, filled with gritty social realism, character complexity, and sombre, snow-battered settings.
Many crime fiction writers across the world cling to the well-worn tropes of building suspense and closeness to the story’s central characters. However, Nordic Noir writes its own rules, adding unique twists to make this subgenre a worldwide hit with hundreds of millions of readers and film fans.
Let us introduce you to the inky-black world of Nordic Noir...
As societies like Sweden and Denmark have been working for decades to achieve gender-equality, many Scandinavian writers like to place women at the heart of their novels. Strong female protagonists are commonly central to many Nordic Noir narratives (take, for example, Sarah Lund in The Killing).
This may be because studies show that 68% of crime fiction readers are female. Therefore, from an author’s perspective, replacing the crime fiction femme fatale with an intelligent and ruthless female could be seen as a bit of a no-brainer.
However, women like Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or Saga Norén from The Bridge, are far from perfect. Anti-hero female leads are a critical narrative hook that makes Nordic Noir fiction so captivating to both female and male audiences.
In many cases, the anti-hero isn’t merely used as a literary device. The inclusion of a ‘tortured soul’ protagonist doesn’t just give readers a cathartic ‘kick’ out of seeing the main character struggle. Rather, the use of anti-heroes in Scandi fiction provides the space for readers to sympathise with the heartbreaking themes discussed in the pages of many of these books.
For example, you may admire a hero that stays strong when confronted with horrific murder scenes. However, you’re more likely to relate and maintain interest in a character that struggles to cope with the emotionally traumatising reality of their job.
Females in many Nordic Noir tales also often find themselves balancing on a very fine tightrope of ‘holding it all together.’ For instance, they may be simultaneously raising a family, solving a gruesome case, as well as dealing with the casual misogyny of their coworkers. This heady mix culminates in excellent fiction writing all-round.
Dramatic Use Of Landscape
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The mostly untouched countryside of Scandinavia has inspired fiction writers for centuries.
Swedish literature, in particular, is known for mixing characterisation details with weather and the natural elements.
Take, for example, this life lesson about winter from one of the Moomins stories;
“There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all the year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep—then they appear.” –Tove Jansson
Descriptors of unspoiled and exotic landscapes cloaked in perpetual darkness can be dizzying for readers not used to living in these environments. Plus, many films and TV crews within the genre also film at night for 90% of their scenes, meaning viewers can quickly lose all sense of time within the plots. Eerie indeed.
Tie this in with the often torrid mental climate of the characters, and the physical demands of following a case, and you have a recipe for the ‘perfect storm’ of gripping Scandi drama.
Triumph And Redemption
Often characters are placed in severe moral dilemmas throughout the plots of many Scandi crime thrillers. Take, for example, the beginning of The Bridge (fourth series coming to UK audiences in May 2018). Upon the initial discovery of two bodies on a bridge, all lanes of traffic have to be stopped. The protagonist, Saga Norén, is then confronted with a woman who begs her to let the ambulance with her husband inside pass. In the plot, Saga says, ‘No.‘
Similarly, in The Killing, Sarah Lund is confronted with a choice in the first episode; stay and solve a case, or leave with her partner to start a new life in Copenhagen.
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The choices each character makes in Nordic Noir fiction is used to show readers the vast nuances of moral reasoning we have in the modern world.
When spliced with the main character’s personal issues and the apparent injustices in society, fantastic commentaries are made through Nordic fiction. Statements that are neither full of rose-tinted optimism, or drowning in despair. Scandi Noir tales are balanced, sometimes redemptive, and always life-altering for all characters involved.
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Scandinavian countries are hailed for their progressive views on political issues, such as multiculturalism and the welfare state. In many Nordic Noir novels, issues such as policing and the involvement of authoritative bodies are pulled under the magnifying glass by authors like Jens Lapidus.
Jens is a qualified criminal defense lawyer, turned crime fiction writer. His books give readers the chance to mull over important societal issues, while simultaneously immersing themselves in a gripping plotline.
Stunning Character Development
The world of Nordic Noir is also closely tied to Nordic independent filmmakers, otherwise known as “Norwave” – a play on “New Wave” cinema.
During the 1980’s, when the Scandinavian film industry started to globalise, studios didn’t have the budget to film action and car chase scenes. This meant that directors had to concentrate on bringing stunningly complex characters into the mix instead. This emphasis on storytelling made the scenes stand out, even if the characters could only really stand around and talk. The same is true of Nordic noir.