A Cold Night's Death: The Allure of Scandinavian Crime Fiction

By Jeremy Megraw, Librarian
January 14, 2013
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Maybe you've got the Nordic noir bug from reading Stieg Larsson's Millennium series (we've all seen those ubiquitous neon paperbacks on the subway) or were enthralled earlier by Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow or the Detective Wallander series of books. However you encounter them, Scandicrime writers such as Henning Mankell, Larsson, or Jo Nesbø are like a good bag of chips, it's hard not to have another. This is a selective guide to some notable authors and detective series from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and even some Nordic noir from Iceland, and what's better, a guide to pronouncing their names correctly over cocktails.

[A note on usage: The terms Scandinavian and Nordic are often used interchangeably but their meanings can be quite distinct in terms of linguisitic, cultural and geographical boundaries. Finns and Icelanders may prefer the term Nordic (derived from Norden meaning Northern). See Use of Nordic countries vs. Scandinavia for a thorough treatment of the topic on Wikipedia]

The Dark Knight

The detectives in Scandinavian crime fiction share many attributes with their American and British counterparts. Many are unkempt, unhealthy and sometimes fatalistic characters, but are nevertheless humane and brilliant sleuths. They doggedly pursue the criminal element, usually (but not always) winning the day at the expense of maintaining a normal family or social life. Some are alcoholics whose human interactions are limited to station and squad car. Some even develop relationships with the victims or, even worse, the criminal. You know you have no life when the serial killer you're hunting chides you about your cholesterol.

Brooding Landscapes

The waves dying a natural death on the beach seemed to have traveled vast distances bearing neither life nor hope. This is not my sea, Van Veeteren thought to himself. —Borkmann's Point, by Håkan Nesser

Key to the appeal of Scandinavian crime literature is the stoic nature of its detectives and their peculiarly close relationship with death. One conjures up a brooding Bergmanesque figure contemplating the long dark winter (they do have their share of hot summers too). Another narrative component just as vital is the often bleak Scandinavian landscape which serves to mirror the thoughts of the characters. Vast alvars, ancient stone, and dark shores inhabit these stories such that the soul of the landscape becomes an important narrative agent, even a character in itself. Readers will also find fascinating the supernatural strain pervading this literature: Ancient beliefs in ghosts, changelings, and other natural spirits thrive in contemporary Nordic noir as if upholding the ancient lineage of the Icelandic saga.

We're All Victims

Another important element of the Scandicrime genre is its traditional willingness to incorporate larger social issues into the narrative of police work. Immigration, xenophobia, misogyny, racism, and larger issues of intolerance and social inequality are recurring themes that often form the core of the mystery at hand.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Any review of Scandinavian crime literature rightly starts in Sweden, home of noir stalwarts Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser, and of course, Stieg Larsson. One must begin, however, with husband-wife team Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, who launched the phenomenon in the 1960s with the series of police procedural novels featuring Inspector Martin Beck. One of them, The Laughing Policeman, was adapted for the screen and starred Walter Matthau. A great 1970s cop movie, and an early blip in the American mainstream of the Scandicrime phenomenon. Detective Beck became the template for the detective as humanistic everyman whose thoughtful investigations serve as a prism through which we view the ills of society. The underbelly of crime revealed by the discovery of a corpse begins an investigative journey that often leads to the higher orders of society and the authorities of the state.

Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell is probably the brightest star in the Scandinoir universe. His Detective Wallander books have been widely translated since the 1990s and today outperform even Stieg Larsson's posthumous success. Wallander is a decent, hard-working detective who takes his cases to heart. Despite being confronted with the worst of humanity's brutality, he is an optimistic soldier in the war against injustice. His social circle is limited mainly to his daughter Linda (who also becomes a detective) and his disapproving father. Start with Faceless Killers and see if you can resist picking up Dogs of Riga. Fans of the Kenneth Branagh BBC TV series Wallander who wish to tap into its Swedish roots will be rewarded by the Svensk ethos of the original TV series starring Krister Henriksson. For completists, there are actually three incarnations of Wallander (properly pronounced 'Vallánder') if you include the original movie adaptations starring Rolf Lassgård.

Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace in the original Swedish film Män som hatar kvinnor, 2009.

Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace in the original Swedish film Män som hatar kvinnor, 2009.

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson's bestselling Millennium Trilogy begins with the first book The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the true title, Män som hatar kvinnor, is Men Who Hate Women). The series is infamous partly because it lacks a proper detective. Our sleuth is Mikael Blomkvist, disgraced editor of the alternative press magazine Millennium, who is privately hired to solve a 36-year old mystery. But the real bonus of the trilogy is the tattooed goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, who becomes Blomkvist's unlikely partner. Larsson scholars will be interested to note that Salander is based partly on the picture book rebel Pippi Longstocking. The movie adaptations of the Millennium Trilogy were faithful and quite thrilling. Even David Fincher's remake was a presentable alternative for the subtitle-averse, but the Swedish original is a must-see (Noomi Rapace will simply own you). Larsson originally devised Millennium as a 10-part series. It was recently announced that The Girl in the Spider's Web, an independent title based on the franchise, written by David Lagercrantz, will be published. 

Håkan Nesser

Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren is another highly regarded series. Van Veeteren is the archetypical single-minded, intuitive, somewhat detached detective with family problems who loves classical music and chess. In Nesser's world, he contemplates a fictional Northern European landscape. Later in the series, Detective Van Veeteren retires and consults on cases from his antique book shop. The series is a good example of Nordic noir at its best. Most of these books also have film versions. The first book is The Mind's Eye.

Johan Theorin

Fans of page-turning thrillers will learn to slow down and enjoy Johan Theorin's Öland Quartet of novels. In the first book Echoes From the Dead, the detective figure is a retired sailor named Gerlof who is seen throughout the series, sometimes only indirectly involved with solving the mystery at hand. Theorin creates a deeply troubling atmosphere of murder, family secrets, and crossed destinies with a gothic feel set on the rugged coast of the Swedish island of Öland. These are low on procedural, heavy on psychology, and with a strong supernatural element. Slow down the tempo and savor Theorin's prose.

Karin Alvtegen

Karin Alvtegen's masterful thrillers are a psychological tour de force. Highly recommended is Missing: A homeless woman is wrongly accused of murder and it is up to her to solve the crime while remaining hidden from the authorities. Gradually the reader learns more about her background via flashbacks of her privileged yet oppressive upbringing and an epic fail of a mother. Her sole ally is a samaritan teenager. As the mutual trust develops between them, his computer savviness and her street-smarts combine to form an ad hoc investigative team which must thwart the killer in a suspenseful race against time. A movie adaptation of the same title was made in 2006. Alvtegen's other books include Guilt, Betrayal, Shame (a.k.a. Sacrifice), and Shadow.

Karin Fossum

On to neighboring Norway. Karin Fossum's distinctive Inspector Sejer series, a Scandicrime fan favorite, are procedurals with a soul. Elegant and well-mannered Inspector Sejer resembles a Norwegian James Stewart. He is determined not only to solve the crime but to understand the motives that led to the scene of death. The Inspector Sejer books are less whodunits than penetrating whydunits that sometimes focus on the criminals themselves and bear witness to the spiral of remorse and desperation that plays out after the crime. In Fossum's world we feel the pain inflicted by the crime on victim, perpetrator, and investigator alike. The crime's consequences spread like a virus to the victim's families and society at a large and the guilty are not always caught. Fossum's books are widely available in NYPL as books, ebooks and audiobooks. The first title in the Inspector Sejer series is Eva's Eye.

Jo Nesbø

If Karin Fossum is Norway's queen of crime, Jo Nesbø is their darling prince, grabbing much of the market share of the Scandicrime wave reaching American shores in the wake of Stieg Larssen's posthumous popularity. The arthouse crowd has seen his book Headhunters (Hodejegerne) adapted into a film recently and are trembling with anticipation for Tomas Alfredson's interpretation of The Snowman to hit the big screen. The popular Harry Hole series is clever, violent, and loaded with dark humor. Each book sports a well-structured theme and Nesbø's narrative moves with the frenetic pace of a first-person shooter. Each book stands on its own but leaves a certain cliffhanger element with regards to the characters' fates. Nesbø's colorful detective Hole is a soul-searching, intermittantly recovering alchoholic who maniacally hunts down his perp. The Harry Hole series never disappoints with clever plot construction and interesting scientific and historical facts woven in as bonus material. The first book in the series, and one of the last to be published, is The Bat. NYPL has many of the books in ebook, audiobook and even large print versions.

Peter Høeg

Smilla's Sense of Snow may be one of the greatest fiction books published in the 1990s but is least typical of the noir picks here. Although it is not a police procedural as such, Smilla is rich in the forensic detail of nature and incorporates many of the existential themes, issues of social inequality and injustice, and investigative suspense found in the Scandinoir tradition. Hoeg's vividly rendered landscapes enraptured readers all over the world, but the real draw was the [non-]detective native Greenlander Smilla, who like Lisbeth Salander, is an outsider with special abilities (she can read snow like a book). [Spoiler alert!] After examining the snow around the scene of a boy's accidental death, she sees that it is no accident, and so begins her amazing quest to find the truth. Smilla uncovers a grand scale conspiracy where the machinations of greed culminates in the murder of a small child.

Jussi Adler-Olsen

Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q series is now available, even in large print. Try the first, Keeper of Lost Causes, a real page-turner about a politician who wakes up to find herself sealed in a pitch black cell. She strives to understand her abduction, survive, and plot her escape. Meanwhile, Detective Mørck, recently "promoted" to a basement room after his partner is killed, picks up the cold case and works it, aided by a mysterious janitor with latent gumshoe talents. As Keeper reaches its conclusion, it becomes an exercise in suspense and pathos which will leave you reeling. The Department Q series is a departure from the genre in some ways, as it is chock full of laugh-out-loud funny situations, oddball characters, and deliciously sinister villains. 

Arnaldur Indriðason

Arnaldur Indriðason's Detective Erlendur series is popular around the globe, and not just for its local Icelandic flavor (boiled sheep's head for take-out anyone?). Erlendur is another hero in the mold of brooding, gruff, but humane detective with a dysfunctional family who resolutely pursues justice. Each book finds him coming closer to terms with his own past as he struggles to keep his present life together. The bleak Icelandic landscape in these books gets under your skin and stays there long after putting them down. But it is the reserved, yet humorous, interplay between Erlendur and his closely-knit investigative team (Elínborg and Sigurður Óli) that comprises the real charm of the Detective Erlendur series. Arnaldur's third book in the series, Jar City (a.k.a. Tainted Blood), is an absorbing mystery that was made into an excellent film version. In the ninth and tenth books (Outrage and Black Skies) Erlendur's partners (Elínborg and Sigurður Óli respectively) are the central characters. For readers who think Strange Shores is the end, fear not, Arnaldur has launched a new prequel series featuring the young rookie Erlendur. In addition there is a spin-off featuring Erlendur's mentor Marion Briem.

This very selective reading list could easily be augmented, so please do share your own recommendations!

Non-fiction sources to learn more:

Popular Scandinavian Detective Series Arranged in chronological running order. This list will be adjusted as books become available in English translation. Title translations may vary between the American titles listed here and British releases which often precede them. Links to original language editions are given where available. Click on the '' symbol to hear a pronunciation of each name (courtesy of Forvo).

Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahlöö - Martin Beck Series

  1. Roseanna (Roseanna)
  2. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Mannen som gick upp i rök)
  3. The Man on the Balcony (Mannen på balkongen)
  4. The Laughing Policeman (Den skrattande polisen)
  5. The Fire Engine That Disappeared (Brandbilen som försvann)
  6. Murder at the Savoy (Polis, polis, potatismos!)
  7. The Abominable Man (Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle)
  8. The Locked Room (Det slutna rummet)
  9. Cop Killer (Polismördaren)
  10. The Terrorists (Terroristerna)

Henning Mankell - Wallander Series

  1. Faceless Killers (Mördare utan ansikte)
  2. The Dogs of Riga (Hundarna i Riga)
  3. The White Lioness (Den vita lejoninnan)
  4. The Man Who Smiled (Mannen som log)
  5. Sidetracked (Villospår)
  6. The Fifth Woman (Den femte kvinnan)
  7. One Step Behind (Steget efter)
  8. Firewall (Brandvägg)
  9. Before the Frost (Innan frosten) a Linda Wallander mystery
  10. The Pyramid (Pyramiden) 
  11. The Troubled Man (Man Den orolige mannen)
  12. An Event in Autumn (originally published in Dutch as Het Graf, read more here)

Stieg Larsson - Millennium Series

  1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor)
  2. The Girl Who Played with Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden)
  3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)
  4. The Girl in the Spider's Web (based on the series by David Lagerkrantz)
  5. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (based on the series by David Lagerkrantz)

Håkan Nesser - Van Veeteren Series

  1. The Mind's Eye (Grovmaskiga nätet)
  2. Borkmann's Point (Borkmanns punkt)
  3. The Return (Återkomsten)
  4. Woman with Birthmark (Kvinna med födelsemärke)
  5. The Inspector and Silence (Kommissarien och tystnaden)
  6. Munster's Case (Münsters fall)
  7. Hour of the Wolf  (Carambole)
  8. The Weeping Girl (Ewa Morenos fall)
  9. The Strangler's Honeymoon (Svalan, katten, rosen, döden)
  10. The G File (Fallet G) Available in German as Sein letzer Fall

Johan Theorin - Öland Quartet (Ölandskvartetten)

  1. Echoes from the Dead (Skumtimmen)
  2. The Darkest Room (Nattfåk)
  3. The Quarry (Blodläge)
  4. The Voices Beyond  (Rörgast)

Karin Fossum - Inspector Sejer Series

  1. Eva's Eye (Evas øye)
  2. Don't Look Back (Se deg ikke tilbake!)
  3. He Who Fears the Wolf  (Den som frykter ulven)
  4. When the Devil Holds the Candle (Djevelen holder lyset)
  5. The Indian Bride (Elskede Poona)
  6. Black Seconds (Svarte sekunder)
  7. The Murder of Harriet Krohn (Drapet på Harriet Krohn)
  8. The Water's Edge (Den som elsker noe annet)
  9. Bad Intentions (Den onde viljen)
  10. The Caller (Varsleren)
  11. The Drowned Boy (Carmen Zita og døden)
  12. Hell Fire (Helvetesilden)
  13. The Whisperer

Jo Nesbø - Harry Hole Series

  1. The Bat (Flaggermusmannen) Available in French as L'homme chauve-souris
  2. Cockroaches (Kakerlakkene)
  3. The Redbreast (Rødstrupe)
  4. Nemesis (Sorgenfri)
  5. The Devil's Star (Marekors)
  6. The Redeemer (Frelseren)
  7. The Snowman (Snømannen)
  8. The Leopard (Panserhjerte)
  9. Phantom (Gjenferd)
  10. Police (Politi)
  11. The Thirst  (Tørst)
  12. Knife (Kniv)

Jussi Adler-Olsen - Department Q Series

  1. The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret)
  2. The Absent One (Fasandræberne)
  3. A Conspiracy of Faith (Flaskepost fra P) Available in Spanish as El mensaje que llegó en una botella
  4. The Purity of Vengeance (Journal 64)
  5. The Marco Effect (Marco Effekten)
  6. The Hanging Girl (Den Grænseløse)
  7. The Scarred Woman  (Selfies)

Arnaldur Indriðason - Detective Erlendur Series

  1. Sons of Dust (Synir duftsins)
  2. Silent Kill (Dauðarósir) Available in German as Todesrosen
  3. Jar City (Mýrin)
  4. Silence of the Grave (Grafarþögn)
  5. Voices (Röddin)
  6. The Draining Lake (Kleifarvatn)
  7. Arctic Chill (Vetrarborgin)
  8. Hypothermia (Harðskafi)
  9. Outrage (Myrká)
  10. Black Skies (Svörtuloft)
  11. Strange Shores (Furðustrandir)
  12. Reykjavik Nights (Reykjavíkurnætur) rookie Erlendur #1
  13. Oblivion (Kamp Knox) rookie Erlendur #2
  14. The Crooked House (Krókar Húsið)
  15. The Great Match (Einvígið) Marion Briem #1