The allure of Nordic noir
Remember when The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out? People went crazy! They’d never read anything like it. Pretty soon it was followed by The Girl Who Played With Fire, and later, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Lisbeth Salander was the anti-hero we’d all unknowingly been waiting for. She was tough as nails, she was traumatized, she was an outsider; she was the girl you were attracted to, but slightly afraid of.
Since then, the Nordic noir phenomenon has become a global obsession, recognized as an international brand, spawning a multitude of books, movies and TV series. So popular are they, that there is hardly a writer north of the 59th latitude who isn’t churning out icy dramas, slow-burning mysteries, and twisted conspiracy tales.
Nordic noir represents the bleakest of the bleak, often centering on brutal crimes tinged with shocking violence. They usually feature protagonists who are tortured themselves with some inner trauma. Brooding and introspective, they’re the anti-American, if you will. The settings, whether sprawling city streets or remote rural villages, are desolate and harsh, offering little in the way of joy.
My husband is a big reader of the genre so I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. A brief sampling:
The Thirst by Jo Nesbo
Probably one of the most famous writers of the genre, Nesbo knows how to create a gripping thriller. This book is a classic who-dunnit featuring legendary detective Harry Hole. Despite the title, I wasn’t quite prepared for the psycho-killer who kills women and drinks their blood. Chilling, but hasn’t the vampire motif been done to death?
The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason
Another prolific writer, this one from Iceland, crafts a gripping story. A skeleton is found in a lake that is rapidly draining away. It is tied to an old Russian radio device and through a series of events, detectives start looking at Cold War espionage. Simultaneously, a story of young idealist students protesting in East Germany, reveals the identity of the skeleton and the murderer. A good read with multiple plot lines, I especially liked the setting of East Germany after the war and its fascinating, unusual, political story.
Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten
An investigation is underway in Sweden into the death of a prominent, ultra-rich financier. At first deemed a suicide, it becomes evident it’s a carefully planned murder involving the Hell’s Angels (yes in Sweden too!) and the underworld of money, drugs and thugs. Very complicated plot but a good read about Swedish police as they work to unravel the threads to catch the killer. Also, the characters are well drawn, making them not just police, but fleshed-out individuals with their own personal struggles and hopes.
The Silence of the Seas by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Another Icelandic thriller, this time aboard a luxury personal cruise ship where the crew and young family of passengers go missing. A chilling mystery that was almost too creepy for me.
Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir
Young mother Sonja becomes embroiled in drug smuggling as a means to an end, namely to save enough money to get custody of her son. Agla, a high roller banker, is being investigated for her part in money manipulation after Iceland’s financial crisis. Set after the volcanic eruption felt across Europe, this is a taut thriller with great characters and an interesting setting. Sub-plot of the women’s turbulent sexual relationship adds an interesting layer to the story.
The world is a dark place and Nordic crime fiction gives us a repository for the turbulent place and time in which we live. The ‘other’, marginalized everywhere else, is given a voice to echo our anxieties. Strangeness is exposed, hidden desires are pulled into the light, and the dark secrets of the soul are characterized by chilling mists and moody settings. No pulling the wool over our eyes here. The sombre reality lurking beneath the surface is now front and centre.
Now that Fall is upon us, it’s time to dig out a comfy sweater and curl up with a dark thriller full of bleak landscapes and brutal crimes. What fun!
Let me know if you’re a fan of the genre, and if so, what some of your favourites are. In the meantime, keep washing your hands and wearing your masks. Stay safe my friends.
Until next time, happy reading!