Friday, 7 May 2010


The sun is shining here, it’s Friday night and a bottle of something nice is gently chilling in the fridge. Are you off to a hytte for the weekend? Have you sorted out your reading pile, ready to have your mind dragged away from all things work and election related?

I have a big heap of Scandinavian thrillers. It’s thrilling. And very Scandinavian. I have a fair collection now, and I’m not going to give this lot away...they’re staying on my permanent book shelf, the shelf I resort to when in need of literary escapism in the form of a gruesome murder set in a dark, cold, northern place.

I have been wondering why the Scandinavians seem to be excelling at this particular literary genre right now. You will know of, and probably have read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of which ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is the first book. You may also have read one or two, or all, of Henning Mankell’s crime novels built around the detective Kurt Wallander....if not, you may have seen the Swedish TV version or the BBC version with Kenneth Branagh. Frankly, I’ve been lapping up the whole lot...the books, the films, the TV series. I know they are hopelessly popular, but they’re the best ‘fiction’ reads I’ve encountered for ages.

These two are of course Swedish. I know I’m across the border in Norway, but the mood is similar.....the descriptions of landscape, the names of shops, buildings, products, weather, the manner and habits of the characters. When the brooding Mikael Blomkvist sits down outside a hytte to contemplate the world while eating rye bread and pickled herring, I know what he’s up to....or when Wallander walks along a beach in order to organise his thoughts, I can see why.

And now, I’ve discovered the equally gripping writing of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. I’m in the middle of ‘The Devil’s Star’ , a scary crime thriller set in Oslo....once again, the joy of knowing that city even just a little, of being able to pronounce street names, imagine the architecture, the views, almost taste the food, is terrifically entertaining.

But there’s more to these authors than being able to relate to the setting. Henrick Ibsen was a great one for analysing the Scandinavian psyche, and these authors seem to be following in that tradition. It just so happens that one can interpret that psyche as being dark, brooding, often withdrawn, where people mask their feelings, and are slow to express their inner-most thoughts. It works perfectly in the context of crime fiction.

The Larsson phenomenon is astounding. To date, the Millennium trilogy has sold well over 27 million copies in over 40 countries, and sales are continuing to rise due to the popularity of the film. A crime thriller is never meant to be a comfortable read, but Larsson’s writing is distinctly uncomfortable. There are long, complex passages concerning business, finance, corruption, Nazi sympathisers, and brutal, horrifying violence against women in particular, some of which is almost impossible to stomach. Some of his characters are so outlandish they are verging on the preposterous....multi-millionaires ensconced on private islands, and a deranged, degenerate waif with a genius for computer hacking....really, you couldn’t make it up, and reviewers have been critical of much of this as being too far-fetched. Funny...they don’t dare say that about Dickens’ Fagan or Miss Haversham? I just happen to think Larsson’s ‘Lisbeth Salander’ is one of the most inspired female characters in recent fiction....don’t care what the academics think.

Larsson knew his stuff. He knew the sordid underbelly of his country in a manner that only the best and bravest of journalists ever bother with, he was prepared to take risks in pursuing and exposing wrong-doers, and his grasp of the seedy side of his outwardly perfect country shines through in his writing. It just is, phenomenally, gripping. The fact that Larsson suffered a fatal heart attack aged 50, just as his novels had become a success in Sweden and were being edited and translated into other languages, is enormously sad. (His death was the start of a real-life saga that almost defies belief....I don’t have room to explain it all here.)

As the sunshine sparkles off the sea beside me, I can’t help but feel surely no Scandinavian crime would ever take place in such a paradise. It’s just too lovely right now. And of course, too perfect. After all, those of us who come from other nations are constantly told of the Utopia that is Scandinavia, where everyone is beautiful, healthy and wealthy, well-educated, generously provided for, and where the quality of life is second to none. To be honest, it’s a relief to find that Scandinavians are normal after all....they are just like the rest of us...they have dodgy neighbourhoods, crime, angst, drunkenness, and unsavoury inhabitants too...and they pay much higher taxes. I wonder if all that is part of the intrigue. Is there even an element of schadenfreude?

On those long, dark, winter nights, when people close their doors to the cold and to each other, it is easy to imagine ample opportunity for solitary brooding....while winter can be beautiful in Norway, it is also the perfect setting for something nasty, if you care to think about it. And even if you’ve never visited a Scandinavian country in your life, somehow they offer a most appropriate atmosphere for the darker side of our imagination to take flight. Enjoy.

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