A look at Nordic Noir mystery novels

Mystery novels from Scandinavia with a decidedly dark side to them.

Spots in Time – Gord Turner

As a reader, it’s interesting to move into new areas of fiction. You can get into a rut and end up reading only American “hard-boiled” detective fiction, from novels like The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler to the latest by Michael Connelly and Lee Child.  A change in reading material is often a good thing.

Recently, I’ve been reading Nordic Noir novels. These are mystery novels from Scandinavia with a decidedly dark side to them. What I’ve discovered is that these northern European countries produce an abundance of good writing in the mystery thriller and police procedural types of writing.

I’ve always been interested in mystery writing, and about 15 years ago, I read several novels by a strange pair of writing-collaborators known as Sjowall and Wahloo. During the 1960s and 1970s, they wrote 10 police procedural novels about special homicide detectives from the Swedish national police. During the writing, each wrote alternate chapters until the book found its way through the crime scene and the perpetrators were caught.

Perhaps the best known Nordic Noir author from the late 20th century was Henning Mankell.  His main character, Kurt Wallander, is featured in at least nine novels beginning with the Faceless Killers in 1991.  Inspector Wallander has few close friends, consumes too much alcohol and junk food, and struggles to control his anger.  Many readers might know of him through the Wallander T.V. series and several films produced from Mankell’s novels.

A number of my friends got hooked on Swedish “Noir” novels not many years ago when Stieg Larsson’s three large mystery novels featuring journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the amazing Lizbeth Salander were published. These books were published posthumously because, although Larsson was a prolific writer during that time, he wrote those three novels for his own pleasure. When he died of a heart attack at age 54, others brought these novels to the public.

I can remember reading each of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest well into several nights.

Perhaps I identified a bit with Blomkvist and his pursuits, and I was cheering every time Lizbeth dealt with one of her abusers and managed to foil those at the top of the Swedish power elite.

A couple of years ago, I happened upon a young Swedish woman writer named Liza Marklund. At that time I read Red Wolf (2003) and Postcard Killers (2010) and was quite taken with the character of newspaper reporter Annika Bengtzon.  While covering stories for the papers she works for, she ends up in the middle of crime scenes, and because she is a tough customer, she manages to help the police catch the criminals and unravel some disturbing plots.

Sweden’s most popular writer today is crime writer Camilla Lackberg. Several friends and my wife and I have read nine of her novels. Her mystery novels are strong in detail, sharp in characterization, and deep in psychological complexity.

Throughout these novels, we follow the careers of Erika, a free lance writer, and Patrik, a police officer. We meet them before they know one another, when they first start dating, when they get married, when they have children, and when their children are growing. Their narrative carries through several novels during which time they solve several murders and uncover many conspiracies.

Beginning with The Ice Princess in 2003, Lackberg has caught the imagination of readers worldwide.  The same could be said of Norwegian Noir writer Jo Nesbo, whose protagonist Harry Hole has a resemblance to  Mankell’s Wallander.  To begin with, I’d recommend both The Phantom and The Snowman.