Thursday 29 October 2020

Nordic Noir: New Hot Spot For Crime Fiction

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The alliteratively named genre, Nordic Noir, interchangeably, if not 100% accurately, with Scandinavian Noir, or Scandicrime, or Scandinoir, began to come to the notice of other parts, way back in the 1960s. That was when the first Scandinavian ‘police procedural’ novels went to other parts of Europe, and across the Atlantic.  Walter Matthau starred in an early adaptation of Per Wahloo’s The Laughing Policeman in the 1970s, featuring as the influential but ordinaryman detective Martin Beck. But by 2016, after the phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published Millennium Series of Girl with this-and-that books/films, it is a stylish wave that has swept all before it. Larsson had planned 10 books in the series before he died just before the first one was published, but now, a fifth, is being written by another writer, to keep the juggernaut moving.

Scandinavia then is the definitive region from which crime fiction incorporating existential philosophy, humour, perversion, social commentary, rebelliousness, more, all rolled up in a wrap of blood, murder, detection, stoic police procedure, and meticulous forensics, emanates, no, gushes forth. The Scandinavian landscape, ‘vast alvars, ancient stone, dark shores’, as New York Public Library (NYPL) Photograph Librarian Jeremy Megraw writes, is a partner in crime, along with the ‘humanistic… whose thoughtful investigations serve as a prism through which we view the ills of society’. In Scandicrime, more often than not, the ‘ills’ reach very high up into the power structure.

Megraw also points out the incorporation of the ‘supernatural strain’ of ‘ghosts, changelings’, that complement perhaps the legacies ofancient myth and legend, not to mention the surreal Northern Lights. But, in all this, let us not forget the misanthropy, the endearing fatalism and irony, probably a by-product, counterpointal, who knows, of the hot summers, the famous skinny-dipping, the attractive sexual liberation, the cheery fjords.

Roll over Britain and America, once the haven for crime writing and detective/private detective genres. But those were the adventures of quaint granny detectives, country policemen on bicycles, Belgian egg-head detectives with waxed and pointy moustaches, mostly set between the two world wars. Some of this has been able to stay stubbornly current in West End theatre, and in glossy costume/period TV mini-series, but they agitate a certain impatience for depicting another, seemingly altogether unhurried time.

Then there’s Sherlock Holmes, written even further back, in the 19th century. But Sherlock, Watson, Irene Adler and Moriarty, are still alive and kicking, remade into new TV serials and films, using vigorous contemporary stars and dollops of poetic licence. And there are many well received cops  and detective movies  and serials over the years on both sides of the Atlantic. But the Scandinavians score because of their psychological nuancing, and perhaps they seem exotic, compared to the Brooklyn cop or the Jaguar driving British detective.

The British, meanwhile, are  also holding fast to Ian Fleming/the Broccoli franchise of  James Bond, the John Le Carre creations, and other spy/espionage/secret agent sectors. But here too, MI6 has to share space with the vibrant Mossad inspired Israeli tales, and the CIA/FBI via the ever enabling vastness of the US. The once celebrated but now almost forgotten Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler books from American paper backland, all set in the fifties, are now quite dated. A turn or two was all she wrote for once enduring comic strip/book creations Dick Tracy, Rip Kirby, Bugsy Malone, kinky female dominatrix Modesty Blaise, all residing on the edge of Gangster Gulch and Mulholland Drive. They too alas, have faded away, along with their macs and hats, donating their memory to brash revivals of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

Crime-fighters in the Marvel and DC super-hero comics, the Lee Falk creations, have survived with bells on. They are big business, morphed into grandtheatre-class screen players, assisted by star power, costumes, state-of-the-art computer graphics, 3D, and new, ‘inspired-by’ scripts.

Cut to the crime story present — in computerised, internet/smart phone driven times, all the most captivating whodunnits, between covers and on Kindle, are almost exclusively from Scandinavia. But why are Scandinavians so good at this? Simple, direct writing, with most structured around the doings of ‘unkempt, unhealthy, stoic’ policemen,whom, ‘serial killers chide about their cholesterol,’ as Megraw puts it, may be the first reason.

The books are also riveting explorations of chilling murder and violence, made oddly funny, leavened with uncompromising moral depravity, misogyny, incest, rape, paedophilia, sadism, fascism, Marxism, the inequities of immigration and mad relatives. And this amongst the apparently well-ordered, almost paradisical settings of polite civic-minded Nordics, and smoothly functioning welfare states with balanced budgets, citizen pension funds and surpluses.

But there are acknowledgements of new political tensions: the strains put on the innate liberalism, the ravages of drug addiction, bigotry, resurgence of neo-racism, the excesses of sexual permissiveness. So, families are routinely falling apart in Nordic Noir, with separations underway, divorces, and children torn between parents. Most Scandicrime wades into this type of every-home reality, accepting with a shrug that people living in crowded cities can be extremely lonely.

Religion too is gone, absent, AWOL, but the emptiness of atheism creates a void, and seems to have left an ache.

All of Scandinoir is great and gripping at describing meticulous police procedure, psychological profiling, forensics, internet searches, camera surveillance etc., with a magnificent commitment to ultimate justice. It is set in picture-book locales filled with flawed characters, sitting cheek-by-jowl with neat up-to-date skyscraper cities that, just like New York or London, also never sleep. Scandinavia is, in the end, a compact region, a kind of microcosm. But the thing is, it is also surrounded by vast, cold, oceans, a very undeniable macrocosm.

The Nordic nations do have all the ingredients that make for today’s high-tech world. And bless their bleeding hearts, for looking for trouble too. Like France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, tiny Luxembourg, Monaco/Montenegro, like-minded parts of the EU, their neighbours big and small, even wary Britain – the Scandinavians are also busy trying to integrate Syrians, Turks, Sri Lankans etc. into the social fabric.

Their crime fiction reflects all this newness, mixed in with femme fatale blondes, the coarse, lusty ageniks, and nervy tattooed nerds. This very urbanista genre somehow, at least in the West, where empty spaces create sinister tension and imminence, just cannot do without its strange people.

The Swedes lead the pack, with as many as eighteen well-known crime writers. I can count at least another six are from Norway, four from Denmark, and their ranks are growing, with additions coming in from Iceland and Finland too, though Greenland does not seem to have opened its crime fiction account just as yet.

The big new name? Jo Nesbo from Norway, and his detective, Harry Hole, pronounced Hurler.

Many of the works, particularly in English translation, have reached much larger audiences. Several have been made into films and TV  serials, such as Swede Henning Mankel’s Kurt Wallandar books, and  aforementioned Stieg Larsson’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series.

Scandinavia and crime fiction may seem like an unlikely pair. And Sweden, famous for the Nobel Prize, Saab, Volvo, Bjorn Borg, Abba,  does not excite any adverse commentary. None of what we know suggests anything sinister under the surface. But then again Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot and killed, unbelievably, for more reasons than one, walking home in the early evening,from a movie theatre near his home in Stockholm.

Likewise Norway, with its highest standard of living in the world, its salmon and offshore petroleum, tiny population, also does not set off any alarm bells. But here too, in Oslo, out of the blue, there was a horrendous machine gunning of innocents during a picnic, a shoot-out by a crazy native son,not some foreign Islamic terrorist, that killed 50 children in cold blood.

It might not be so obvious, but perhaps these people, quirky, dyspeptic, poetic, are naturals for the genre after all.

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Gautam Mukherjee
Commentator on political and economic affairs

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