The first Scandinavian book I ever read was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg and was captivated by its description of the physical and social landscape of Denmark. The story was a simple detective one – was there a crime, and if there was who was the perpetrator. The snow played an important part in both covering up and uncovering the crime. The cause and detection of the crime were linked to the bleak Danish landscape in winter and the resultant social issues.
I had always grown up thinking of Denmark and Sweden as the perfect European countries with lovely houses, lakes and fjords, forests, snow covered mountains, excellent education systems, social equality and fully functioning welfare states. IKEA arrived and brought with it wonderfully spare Scandinavian furnishing and design. Denmark and Sweden were paradises, was they not? They were the countries Britain should have been but had never even got close to. Then the popularity of Peter Hoeg’s 1992 novel brought us a darker side. Copenhagen was not quite the Danish paradise we had thought.
The Sweden of lakes and brightly painted houses became the Sweden of deep social problems. Crime readers had already been aware of this through the 10 crime fiction novel Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote between 1965 and 1975 showing that Sweden was as crime ridden as anywhere else. In addition, the unsolved 1986 murder of Olaf Palme hinted that something was amiss in Swedish society. Then Henning Mankel, with his Wallander series, took us to the Scandinavian dark side between 1991 and 2009. Ystad is a small Swedish town which seems to have a murder rate similar that in Midsummer Murders and suffers from many social ills.
The tradition of looking as the darker sides of modern Scandinavian society is continues with writers such as Håkan Nesser, Arne Dahl, Anne Holt, Helene Tursten, Camilla Läckberg, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Liza Marklund, Jo Nesbo, KO Dahl, Asa Laarson, Stieg Larsson and Arnaldur Indridason to name but a few. These writers not only set their books in a bleak physical landscape (tower blocks, remote communities and run down parts of cities) but also in a bleak emotional landscape. They reflect the economic, social and political problems affecting northern European countries in a time of economic crisis, mass immigration, the breakdown of social cohesiveness, distrust of the political system and the personal situations of the protagonists.
Why they resonate so much with English speaking audiences is, I think, that we still revere Scandinavian style but are also dealing with many of the same social issues. In addition, we have been prepared for gritty reality crime drama by such writers as Linda la Plante and series such as Waking the Dead, Spooks and Silent Witness.
The interest in Scandifiction and Scanditelevision was evident in the 3000 people who turned up for the first day of the two-day event in London, Nordicana. At this event were many stars of Swedish/Danish television crime series such as the cast of Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge. The fans were able to hear the writers, producers and actors talk about the making of these programmes and the influence they have had around the world. The novelists Arne Dahl and Håkan Nesser were also on hand to talk about their books and distinctive style of writing.
There is an online review here:
Programmes such as Borgen have brought us a greater understanding of how the Danish political system works and shows that, even though Denmark has a small population, it has similar issues to the UK. The use of a female politician as the main character, a year before a female PM was elected for real, reflects the way women are now stepping up to take the reins of power.
The Bridge and The Killing both brought us a strong female detectives taking the lead in crime cases, some thing which is also reflected in modern Nordic-Scandinavian crime novels. There was also a grittiness in these programmes which contrasts sharply with the almost cosy approach of Vera, a series by Ann Cleeves which deals with the same post-industrial landscape as the Nordic-Scandinavian writers.
Hakan Nesser and Arne Dahl at Nordicana 2014
Will we see a similar style of writing transferring to British crime fiction, I wonder.