Culture / Editor's Own

A Short History of Nordic Noir

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The Bridge, Beck,  Wallander, The Killing: the sensation that is “Nordic Noir” has never been more popular. But why has Scandinavia, whose nations regularly top the charts of transparency, equality, happiness and well-being and the bottom of the charts for crime rates, produced such dark, depressing and disturbing works of art, literature, theatre and television? 

Alexander Brett

To find out I will embark on a whistle-stop tour of major Scandinavian writers, artists and intellectuals, trying to unearth exactly where the darkness sprang from, and why it continues to be so irresistible for Nordic natives and foreigners alike.

Searching for a new voice in the modern world

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Before the twentieth century, Scandinavia was almost entirely unknown to other Europeans. The Renaissance had failed to reach it with the same magnitude as the rest of the Continent and Norway was not Christianised by the Catholic Church until as late as the early thirteenth century.

After the fall of the Viking Empire, Norway was in fact close to dying out completely. The Kalmar Union of 1397 meant it became the oppressed partner in a union with Denmark and Sweden, and it was not until 1905 that a Swedish king, Charles XIII, finally relinquished control of the country, with Norway becoming an independent state.

But far from embracing this new found independence with open arms, Norway panicked. Edvard Munch’s painting of 1893, The Scream (Skrik), perhaps the most recognisable and parodied painting in history after Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, personifies a collective Norwegian shock at coming to terms with having to fend for themselves in an ever changing, rapidly industrialising world: the world moves on while Norway stops and screams at its crippling lack of self-confidence.

When home rule was achieved in 1815 Norway entered a “personal union” with Sweden and independence appeared inevitable. Norwegian artists, composers and writers rushed to find a suitable “national cultural language” for their nation. Centuries of rule from abroad had essentially crushed all traces of an ancient, Viking rooted identity, and the “new Norwegian” image would consequently have to be entirely original.

Edvard Grieg, who would later instill in Jean Sibelius a “Finnish national voice” as it shook of Russian rule in 1917, was particularly influential in giving Norway a “national musical language”. What made Grieg unique among the artists of his day was that rather than providing an entirely original genre, he attempted to realise what many saw as a dead end: returning Norway to its folkloric foundations. But of this period, it is not an artist or composer who is most remembered, but a playwright: Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s plays are grim, grey and dark, revolving around the lives of the socially oppressed (of which he was a member): he is, in effect, the very essence of all things “Nordic Noir”.

A feudal backwater: Scandinavia before the welfare state

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Industrialisation had scarcely reached Norway, and with the factories of Malmö, Gothenburg and Stockholm snatched away on independence, it was down to cities such as Bergen, Stavanger and Oslo to take up the baton. They took up the challenge, but change was painfully slow, and, just as industrialisation seemed complete, in April 1940 the Nazis invaded. As in its other conquered lands, the Wehrmacht obliterated everything in their path, and anything they themselves built was destroyed by an incredibly strong Resistance movement. By May 1945, as the Germans withdrew, there was, essentially, nothing left.

As in France and Britain, the Second World War left a gaping hole for a growth in Socialism and the emergence of a welfare state. The post war period was to mark the birth of the Norway we all recognise today; the beginning of the “Nordic Model”, where citizens hand the government up to fifty five per cent of their earnings, but are rewarded with some of the most effective social security systems in the world. Under the premiership of Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen Norway was transformed from a poverty stricken, backward land, to a cultivated, forward thinking European powerhouse.

This transformation, though, was understandably disorientating for most Norwegians, and the country entered the modern world blurry-eyed. Finally, just as the population began to adjust to their new nation, on 21st August 1969, oil was struck in Norwegian waters. The government rushed to nationalise the reserve, but however much it tried, inevitably some of this new-found wealth trickled down into the hands of citizens. With the days of poverty fresh in Norwegian memory, as the money rained down, some went mad.

Harry Hole: in the shadow of Norway’s oil rush

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Jo Nesbø, once small town footballer and musician from Mølde on Norway’s west coast, responded to the self-indulgence and free-for-all of Norway’s oil mania. In his Detective Harry Hole novels that include The Redbreast and The Snowman, since published in over fifty languages, though they may be written thirty years after the oil rush, Harry expresses disillusionment and alienation with his country’s new identity; its greed, and the ruthless criminal underworld that formed as a result. Harry’s world is one of corruption, deceit and dangerous pragmatism.

The parents of modern-day Scandi noir, Sjöwall and Wahlöö

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Sweden, unlike Norway, struck no oil, but was certainly no poorer. Provided they could place it on a map blonde girls, speedboats and picnics in the sun were the only images of Sweden that found their way to British eyes during the sixties. And this was not only a foreigner’s perspective, but also a Swede’s. With a strong economy, benevolent welfare state and a feeling of unbreakable security, neutral (if collaborative) Sweden emerged from the war happier than ever.

That was before Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö ruined it with their irresistibly valiant detective, Martin Beck. Beck was the beginning of Scandinavian noir as we know it, the unique blend of traditional crime fiction and an unsubtle jab at societal flaws. The Beck novels were an instant success both in Scandinavia and Britain, but Beck’s impeccable knowledge of the truths of society did little to dent both native and foreign perceptions of the Nordic paradise. It was going to take more.

The real life mystery of Olof Palme

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On the night of 28th February 1986 Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was walking home from the cinema with his wife, Lisbet. He had shunned police protection for the evening and, as he rounded the corner of Sveavägen, he was shot in the back from point blank range. After a taxi driver raised the alarm, Palme was rushed to hospital, but died shortly after. His attacker walked calmly onto Stockholm’s metro system and disappeared.

Sweden descended into shock. The very self-confidence in their security that had meant their Prime Minister did not require protection that night was under threat and many began to question whether their country was really free from the evils suffered by the rest of the world. But while most of society panicked, writers rejoiced. The subsequent investigation into Palme’s death, which eventually led to the conviction of small time drug addict Christer Petterson, opened a project that cost the Swedish intelligence services 350 million SEK (over £26,000), one of the largest police investigations in history. Palme’s assassination, like Kennedy’s, opened the door to countless conspiracy theories: prime material for the rising stars of crime fiction.

From Palme’s grave rises Henning Mankell

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Mankell, like Sjöwell and Wahlöö, wrote from a profoundly Socialist perspective. A successful dramatist in Stockholm during the eighties, it was in 1991 that Detective Kurt Wallander first came to the attention of Swedes, and Brits soon after in 1997.

Wallander was an immediate success, and has gone on to be adapted to the screen, stage and even opera. The exploits of this troubled detective have been portrayed by numerous actors, but most notably Kenneth Brannagh in the English translation, and Krister Henriksson in the original Swedish, both of whom were huge successes on either side of the North Sea. Wallander is an old man, an honest but emotionally disturbed man that we can all relate with, wherever we come from. His home town of Ystad in southern Sweden, is a metaphor for the country as a whole, post-Palme; an idyllic backwater where, all too sadly, bad things still happen. And Wallander’s left-wing but subdued, calm recognition of this is vital to the stories’ success.

It is Wallander who points out what was to be yet another blow to the Swedish welfare state: new waves of immigration. 1991, when Faceless Killers, the first of the Wallander series was published, saw the fall of Communism in Europe. With the Iron Curtain swept aside, former Communist citizens flocked to the strange land of Sweden that so effortlessly combined Socialism and democracy: Communism without the Stasi or KGB. Few doubted the welfare state wasn’t strong enough to cope with these new arrivals from Poland, Serbia, Latvia and Czechoslovakia.

And, thankfully, they’ve been right so far, even with 98,216 Syrian refugees now living in a country of just ten million. Whether Sweden can continue to extend its benevolent welcome to outsiders, support a welfare system and fend off ever-present neo-Nazi movements such as the National Socialist Front (omnipresent in Swedish politics since the nineties), is another question.

Steig Larsson and Peter Høeg: uncovering Scandinavia’s omnipresent xenophobia

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The Millennium Trilogy, which most notably includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is now the most successful Nordic noir franchise. It was also one of the first representations of Sweden’s rapidly rising xenophobia. The trilogy’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is anti-social and incredibly ugly, covered from head to toe in tattoos. She is, some say, the very personification today’s Syrian refugees: physically and mentally out of place in her surroundings.

Denmark’s xenophobia is perhaps more worrying, as it concerns an alienation of their own colonial subjects, the Greenlanders. With their Asian appearance, an Eskimo in Copenhagen is immediately recognisable. And although an alienation to these outsiders is ever present in Danish literature, film and television, Peter Høeg is one of the only writers to have created a book centred on the subject: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. Smilla, a native Greenlander, arrives in metropolitan Denmark with a continual longing to return to her homeland, and when a fellow Greenlandic little boy falls to his death in her apartment block, an ineffectual police force means she must investigate it alone.

But we’re not depressed, and they’re certainly not. So what’s the hype?

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Hygge (loosely translated as “cosyness”) exploded in the UK last year, with guidebooks on The Art of Hygge and even a Little Book of Hygge, a hygge manual like the ones from Ikea in every bookshop. We all want to be a Scandi, even our politicians. David Cameron, a fan of The Killing, was constantly searching for the next secret to success in Copenhagen, and the “Norwegian model” has become a beacon for many post-Brexit.

There must be some Viking flare still in us, some connection with Scandinavian literature we don’t from the “Mediterranean Noir” of Inspector Montalbano, Chekhovian darkness or the French despair. Both Britain and Scandinavia have long, cold winters, an innate social awkwardness and a desire for justice to be achieved. We love to watch Montalbano sipping an expresso in the Sicilian sun, but it’s not real life. Wallander working long hours, very tired, living alone and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s is, all too sadly, more like the real world.

And for Scandinavians themselves? While tragic events of course occur, these nations are still unbelievably safe. The noir they tune into is an imagination of a very different world, one that, for Scandinavians, doesn’t exist. They can settle down to watch The Bridge or The Killing, then look out of their window and see that everything is calm, orderly and clean.


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