Culture / Interview

“I Had an Instant Predilection for Crime Fiction”: Barry Forshaw in Conversation


The UK’s leading expert in crime fiction, BARRY FORSHAW is perfectly placed to discussed the unstoppable rise of ‘Nordic Noir’, and how it will remain enduring for Brits many years from now…

Alexander Brett

What sparked your interest in crime writing?

As a boy I read both R.T. Chandler’s The Big Sleep and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. I enjoyed both but there was an instant predilection for crime fiction. With journalism it was not so speedy. The first books I reviewed were in the general literary field, but it took time for my editors to realise my enthusiasm for crime fiction. As for becoming an expert in the field – well, it was a mantle I was happy to take on, though it is hard to keep up with all the new entries (or, for that matter, the re-reading of old favourites).

When did the British obsession with ‘Nordic Noir’ begin – and did you see it coming?

I can remember quite clearly a time when Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were not regarded by British readers as part of a clearly defined ‘Scandinavian wave’, but simply as highly accomplished practitioners of crime fiction, distinguished as much by their markedly left-wing perspective as by the fact that they were from a Nordic country. They merely coexisted alongside such foreign masters as Georges Simenon and Andrea Camilleri. With hindsight we see that Mankell, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were busy laying the groundwork (albeit unconsciously) for an explosion that was to detonate with Steig Larsson. When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in Britain we were aware that he – already dead – was something of a phenomenon in Sweden. When I was asked to write a biography of him, I knew I was looking at the start of ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK.

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“When I was asked to write a biography of Stieg Larsson, I knew I was looking at the start of ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK.”

Why is ‘Nordic Noir’ so appealing to Brits?

It is an intriguing combination of familiar and unfamiliar. The British are closer in temperament (and climate) to Scandinavia than the Mediterranean countries, but there is still just enough that is ‘exotic’ (or at least unfamiliar) to render the tropes of its crime fiction fresh.

In which British books / films / television programmes is the influence of ‘Nordic Noir’ most apparent?

The most obvious examples are the books of Ann Cleeves, the BBC’s Shetland and ITV’s Broadchurch. Ann Cleeves is a great admirer of ‘Nordic Noir’, and its influences are clearly marked in her work, while Shetland and Broadchurch both have the atmospheric look of a ‘Nordic Noir’ drama, even though they are filmed in the UK.

Is a strong sense of female empowerment unique to ‘Nordic Noir’?

In my interviews with writers and filmmakers involved with ‘Nordic Noir’, one British influence comes through again and again: Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Jane Tennison. The writers of The Killing all told me that there would be no Sarah Lund without Jane Tennison.

As well as ‘Nordic Noir’ television shows The Killing, Wallander and The Bridge, the Danish political drama Borgen was also a hit in the UK. Are there themes in Borgen that can be compared to those of ‘Nordic Noir’, and does this explain its popularity?

When I was writing Nordic Noir I asked the creator of Borgen, Adam Price, if he minded the show being lumped with crime thrillers when Borgen is clearly a political drama. He told me he did not, as Borgen was part of a wave of interest in all things Scandinavian abroad. There is definitely something about the show that links it to the thriller genre. Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg for example, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, is given a problem to solve most episodes, sometimes in which lives are at stake: very much the territory of ‘Nordic Noir’ drama.

‘Mediterranean Noir’, the books of Andrea Camilleri for example, are increasingly popular in the UK. Do you think ‘Mediterranean Noir’ could one day push ‘Nordic Noir’ aside?

Italy, with its endemic political corruption, is fertile territory for crime fiction, not least with the ever-present impact of the Mafia. It is notable (and perhaps regrettable) that, as yet, many of the remarkable and idiosyncratic talents of this branch of crime fiction have not made the same mark as their Scandinavian confrères. But enthusiasm for ‘Mediterranean Noir’ among non-Italian speaking readers is growing, and the attentive reader will take on board the sometimes subtle, sometimes direct, political insights and historical contexts freighted to the work of such writers as Andrea Camilleri, Leonardo Sciascia and Carlo Lucarelli. But will it push ‘Nordic Noir’ aside? No.

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“Enthusiasm for ‘Mediterranean Noir’ among non-Italian speaking readers is growing. But will it push ‘Nordic Noir’ aside? No.”

Are there any other countries where the British fascination for ‘Nordic Noir’ is matched?

Britain leads the world in foreign appreciation of ‘Nordic Noir’. When the American director David Fincher was asked why he was making an English-language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he pointed out that Americans dislike relying on subtitles. The Brits of course once had a similar resistance, but that is pretty well history now.

What is your favourite Nordic book / film / television programme and why?

I would hate to pick any one book, but my favourite authors include Henning Mankell, Gunnar Staalesen, Karin Fossum, Antti Tuomainen and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. As for filmed drama, I still love the ‘big three’: The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen (if we are to consider the latter as ‘Nordic Noir’).

How do you see the future of ‘Nordic Noir’, both within Scandinavia and in the UK?

While the first flush of enthusiasm may be dying down, there are still many first-rate creators at work. And while it may no longer be a tidal wave of material, there is no question that ‘Nordic Noir’ will settle down as a healthy, enduring part of crime fiction.

BARRY  FORSHAW’s books include Nordic Noir, Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction and The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Life and Works of Steig Larsson.


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