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Scandinavian Crime Fiction Kills

© Courtesy of Hyperion Courtesy of Random House Courtesy of HarperCollins

Stars of the lethal genre, made famous by Stieg Larsson, give it new life.

It all began with a dead body. In this case, the corpse was Stieg Larsson, who suffered a heart attack in 2004 in the Stockholm office of the small antifascist magazine he edited. At the time, none of his novels had been published, and “Scandinavian crime fiction” had only slightly more global renown than “Slavic baseball comedies.” But since then, Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest have sold more than 65 million copies. The publishing industry has responded by rushing out books by seemingly anyone with a yen for murder and an address within a few hundred miles of the Arctic Circle. In the second half of 2012 alone, crime novels by a startling roll call of Scandinavians—including Jo Nesbø, Jussi Adler-Olsen, K.O. Dahl, Karin Fossum, Lars Kepler, Hans Koppel, Camilla Läckberg and Hakan Nesser—will turn up stateside. Some will likely feature a blurb touting the author as “The next Stieg Larsson.”

The writer who has come closest to fulfilling that promise is Nesbø, a Norwegian whose novels about alcoholic Oslo detective Harry Hole (Phantom is the latest) have sold millions. But Nesbø’s books display both a keener sense of humor than Larsson’s and a grimmer worldview. Plus, he had published five novels before anyone had ever read Dragon Tattoo. Still, the attention has been a boon: His books have been translated into more than 40 languages, and Martin Scorsese is slated to direct an adaptation of Nesbø’s 2007 novel, The Snowman. As the author put it wryly last year when asked about the Larsson comparisons, “I’m not thrilled, but I’m not that annoyed, either.”

Anyone looking for a primer on the genre needs to check out the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish couple who wrote ten slyly funny police procedurals between 1965 and 1975. The books made a modest impact here (one, The Laughing Policeman, was turned into a movie) but were wildly popular throughout Scandinavia. Sjöwall and Wahlöö had a fondness for bleak landscapes and miserable weather and saw their novels as left-wing critiques of society, characteristics that have largely endured in the work of the authors who have followed. As Nesbø has said, “Everyone in Scandinavia who writes a crime novel...they are influenced by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.”

The foundation they laid is certainly familiar to readers of earlier American and British writers like Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald and P.D. James, but the political undercurrents, exotic locales and black humor give these Scandinavian books the feel of culturally immersive travelogues. There is something irresistible about a corpse discovered on an icy fjord or a cop pounding the pavement on a drizzly Oslo day.

It wasn’t until the early ’90s, though, that Nordic noir began making consistent inroads in English. Peter Høeg’s 1992 thriller, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, set in his native Denmark and on the forbidding terrain of Greenland, became a huge seller and later a movie. Written in declarative bursts that often recall Hemingway but with dread shadowing every word, Smilla is one of the genre’s undeniable literary triumphs. Høeg’s protagonist, the oddly seductive Smilla Jaspersen, seems to have been a template for Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, though Høeg himself is circumspect about his influence. “All those writers of Scandinavian crime books, they never needed me,” he says. “They would’ve succeeded anyway.”

The post–Dragon Tattoo boom is partially due to many years’ worth of books only now being translated into English. But according to Elisabeth Dyssegaard, the Danish-born editor in chief at Hyperion, the successes have also driven more Scandinavian authors toward the genre. “It’s every writer in a small country’s dream to be translated into English,” says Dyssegaard, who brought Smilla to the United States. “So writers in Scandinavia have responded to what they see as one, possibly easier, way to get into the world market.”

Some of the most recent offerings suggest that the entire Scandinavian crime-lit phenomenon is undergoing stylistic transformations. While Nesbø’s Phantom is still the sort of grisly procedural that first gained him a following, and The Absent One, the latest from Adler-Olsen, is the second action thriller in a series about a Copenhagen cold-case detective, other authors have moved beyond the traditional confines of the genre. Høeg’s latest, The Elephant Keepers’ Children, involves a disappearance, but the tone is more surrealist comedy than gritty drama. The Shadow Girls, by Henning Mankell, creator of the Kurt Wallander mysteries, has no real crime at all. Instead, it’s in part about a Swedish author whose editor tells him to write crime novels so he can sell more books. For Mankell, who has written plays and children’s books and who ended the Wallander series in 2009, the meta subtext is intentional. As he put it recently, “I hope that in five years, I will be known as what I am: a writer who writes about many different things.”

One of the fall’s most anticipated books, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, an audaciously epic debut by Swede Jonas Jonasson, features plenty of crime but relies on humor to keep readers turning the pages.

The timing may be right for this sort of grand creative pivot. The gold-rush mentality that followed Larsson’s success has brought many middling books to light, and the interest in the region’s crime novels will not last forever. “There are many good writers around now, but the attention of the public changes,” says Høeg. “Thirty years ago, it changed to South America, then to other parts of the world. And it will keep changing.”

Five Can’t-Miss Nordic Noirs

The Laughing Policeman By Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Pantheon, 1970) A grumpy inspector looks into a mass murder on a bus in this classic police procedural.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow By Peter Høeg (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993) In this psychological thriller, a boy’s death sends a woman back to her native Greenland to uncover the truth.

The Redbreast By Jo Nesbø (Harper, 2007) Disgraced detective Harry Hole investigates neo-Nazis in current-day Norway.

The Caller By Karin Fossum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) The crimes aren’t lurid, but the writing is economical, poetic and all the more terrifying for it.

The Stonecutter By Camilla Läckberg (Pegasus, 2012) An investigation into a girl’s drowning weaves in multiple story lines soaked in familial dysfunction.