from macabre to mainstream
You’ve probably heard the story before. The protagonist: a pessimistic, troubled detective, far from classically heroic. The premise: a gripping, intricate, and disturbing crime. The backdrop: a rainy, bleak northern European city. The twist: a complexity in the detective’s personal life, never touted as a big deal but usually compelling and maybe surprising. The romance: often sex, but little love, nothing too complicated, dare we say straightforward? The conclusion: calm, simple resolution.
I picked up my first mystery crime thriller when I was 17. I started it on a Thursday, and by Sunday I was at the library hunting for the sequel. And by the end of that week, I’d returned again for the third in the series, exhausted but ravenous. Within 10 days I’d read all 2,256 pages of the Millennium series, Stieg Larsson was my new hero, and Lisbeth Sanders, the titular girl with the dragon tattoo, was my new idol.
I figure my parents must’ve taken at least some solace in the fact that I wasn’t the only one obsessed with the macabre genre, the twisted, depressing plot, or the bleak realism characterizing Larsson’s Millennium series. Fifteen million other Americans also read it, and over 30 million copies of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” have sold worldwide since its publication in 2004—a figure that sets Larsson’s book sales alongside those of Dan Brown and Harper Lee.
Larsson’s trilogy is perhaps the most popular collection to emigrate from Sweden, but in his wake dozens of other Scandinavian authors sprouted similar darkly compelling works, some of which have also gained worldwide acclaim. Almost overnight, from the depths of what is often thought of as one of the most peaceful regions of the world, Nordic Noir materialized.
So how is it that these predictably dark, depressing, and cynical novels have dominated the thriller genre for the past 10 years? In an article published following Larsson’s death in 2004 (right before his trilogy was published), Vanity Fair noted that bookstores “now have special sections for the Scandinavian phenomenon.” What makes these books so special? Why do we like them so much?
The Economist speculated in March of 2010 that there are “three factors [that] underpin the success of Nordic crime fiction: language, heroes, and setting.” This generalization is true to a surprising extent. When comparing the works of Larsson to Jo Nesbø (Norway) and Henning Mankell (Sweden), two other prominent Nordic writers involved in cementing the new genre, you can find more similarities than differences in the works. The most variance is in their individual plots.
For all three, diction is simple and straightforward. Nothing flowery, no metaphors. Characters’ emotions are typically portrayed through logical body language—a nod or a cringe, rarely emphasized or explained—or via rational thought, whether inner monologue or dialogue. Each series’ detective is a troubled character, an outsider who struggles with some personal vice, be it drinking, women, or other social relationships. Each protagonist is worn down by years of police service and repeated disappointment. Though the settings of these novels vary from city to countryside, they are always bleak and cold, haunted by eternally overcast weather and strikingly ordinary communities.
“When I write, I always try to reflect the reality we live in,” Mankell told The Telegraph in 2011. “A reality that is becoming rougher and more violent. This violence and its impact on people around it is what I try to reflect in [my main detective character]. But reality always surpasses the poem.”
Through their work, Mankell, Larsson, and Nesbø all seem focused on shattering the world’s utopian Nordic stereotype.
“Sweden is still a very peaceful country to live in. I think that people in Britain have created this mythology about Sweden, that it’s a perfect democratic society.” Mankell said. “That’s bullshit and one of the things I’ve tried to do is correct that.”
The genre’s popularity has even been translated from page to the screen. In August 2011, BBC Four ran an episode as a part of their Timeshift documentary series titled “Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction” that explored the lives of Larsson, Mankell, and Nesbø. In November 2015, Netflix released “River”, a new six-part series featuring Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård as—maybe you can guess—a troubled detective trying to solve a dreary European city’s problems while running up against a host of personal vices. It was well received: The Telegraph touted the show as “one of the year’s best homegrown TV dramas” for its “beautifully written” screenplay, stylishly directed scenes, and superb acting.
Niclas Salomonsson, a literary agent representing nearly all the up-and-coming Scandinavian crime writers, proposed that the style of the books, “realistic, simple, and precise … and stripped of unnecessary words,” is what what sets them apart and makes them so widely popular. “The plain, direct writing, devoid of metaphor, suits the genre well.”
So, for many Americans—at least 15 million of us—life isn’t only about happiness, sunshine, and rainbows. It’s also about simplicity, straightforwardness, and direction. Though we aren’t near either spectrum of Nordic fame, neither peacefully utopian nor pessimistically macabre, Larsson, Mankell, and Nesbø still manage to hook us and imprint a message: We naturally like what’s simple and realistic, a surprisingly affirming takeaway from a pessimistic Nordic thriller.