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The Scandinavian Crime Fiction Starter Kit

So you stayed up all night to finally read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and now you’re hooked on Scandinavian noir. Welcome to the club—after ABBA and Lego bricks, crime novels are the region’s biggest cultural export. But while Girl and its sequels brought the genre onto the global stage, Stieg Larsson is hardly the finest Scandinavian crime author, nor is his Millennium trilogy the best introduction to this universe. Below, I’ve highlighted six authors (including one cowriting duo) who helped define this bleak and sardonic world. If you dig left-wing politics, sad detectives, or people eating salmon, you’ll find a lot to love here. Pour yourself a glass of akvavit and let’s get to it.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

In the mid-1960s, two Marxists decided that crime fiction was a better way to reach the public than journalism, so they resolved to write 10 novels critiquing modern-day Swedish society. It sounds disastrous, but Maj Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Story of a Crime series provided the blueprint for everything here that follows. Protagonist Martin Beck is a respected police officer with a failing marriage (you’ll see this type again), and his weary outlook gives these expertly crafted police procedurals an elegiac dignity. Occasionally you’ll find a paragraph that looks like a Daily Worker op-ed, but more often, Sjöwall and Wahlöö spike their social criticism with black humor and ironic twists. Remember, the point is for it to go down easy.


Where to Start: The Laughing Policeman

“The facts are clear-cut. Very simple. Therein lies the difficulty,” says Martin Beck about three-quarters of the way through The Laughing Policeman. That sums up the appeal of this ingenious puzzle. A police officer is killed in what appears to be a random mass shooting, and the only clue leads Beck to a years-old cold case, which is even more infuriatingly difficult to solve. As such, Beck and his colleagues spend most of the book banging their heads against the wall, often to bleakly hilarious effect. Yet when the investigation finally clicks into place, the effect is remarkably thrilling; for once, the various officers operate with ruthless efficiency, swiftly closing in on their target. While Sjöwall and Wahlöö would produce more ambitious novels—The Locked Room finds Beck investigating two parallel crimes, linked in a way that remains unclear until the novel’s conclusion—this is the perfect distillation of their aesthetic.

Peter Høeg

Unlike the other authors on this list, Høeg never created a series; in fact, he’s only published one book that can be accurately described as crime fiction. But until the publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Høeg’s early-’90s hit Smilla’s Sense of Snow was likely the most popular single volume of Scandinavian crime fiction; it “introduces a striking new author and character … it should be amusing to see where they go from here,” wrote Rhoda Koenig in New York. Ultimately, that turned out to be nowhere: Høeg never wrote a follow-up, and soon turned to other genres.


Where to Start: Smilla’s Sense of Snow


The huge popularity of Snow is hard to explain now, partly due to the spectacular failure of a 1997 film adaptation, but also because the book defies most of the conventions of Scandinavian crime fiction. Though its protagonist is often compared to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander, its tone is just as far from the lurid extremes of that novel as it is from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s neatly crafted police procedurals. Instead, this is an offbeat tale of obsession. Smilla Jaspersen, the eccentric narrator, suspects that the death of a young neighbor is murder and pursues the truth with singleminded intensity. With her gnomic utterances and philosophical bent, Smilla sometimes seems like a Danish cousin of True Detective’s Rust Cohle, and the characters she meets—a Bible-quoting accountant, a stuttering mechanic, a blind professor of linguistics—are just as oddly memorable. As the novel moves into the realms of conspiracy thriller and science fiction, Smilla never strays from her original mission, grounding the novel in dark but recognizable emotions.

Håkan Nesser

Nesser is one of the best technicians in Scandinavian crime fiction, and his finely tuned plots will appeal to fans of classic detective stories; his characters even reference Agatha Christie from time to time. If Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s overt social criticism seems hard to swallow, you’ll be happy to learn that Nesser neatly eschews such issues; his Inspector Van Veeteren lives in a fictional town, which just about sums up the level of real-world engagement you get in these novels. Not that that makes them any less entertaining.


Where to Start: Borkmann’s Point


Borkmann’s Point, the second Van Veeteren mystery and the first to be translated into English, is an apt introduction to his analytical style. The title refers to the point at which a detective has all the clues necessary to solve the case; any further information threatens to cloud his or her judgment. Van Veeteren is summoned to a small coastal town to find a serial killer armed with an ax; as the bodies pile up and one of his colleagues disappears, he’s haunted by the thought that he could catch the killer easily, if only he could find a pattern. Yet for a book that treats its central mystery almost like a math problem, the ending has a stunning emotional resonance.

Henning Mankell

It’s all too easy to compare Henning Mankell to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Mankell’s most famous creation, Inspector Kurt Wallander, is a sadder, bleaker version of Martin Beck; where Beck has a troubled marriage that eventually ends amicably, Wallander is divorced when we meet him, has a few relationships that fall apart, and ends up developing Alzheimer’s. And like his predecessors, Mankell is a keen social critic, though he has an unfortunate tendency to make his politics a little too overt. After a while, you start to wonder: Does every villain have to be an apartheid supporter or an organ trafficker?


Where to Start: Faceless Killers


That said, when Mankell’s social concerns don’t overwhelm his fiction, the Wallander books are as good as this kind of thing gets. In Faceless Killers, the first in the series, an elderly couple is brutally attacked at their home in rural Sweden. When the police arrive, the husband is dead, and the wife dies shortly afterwards. Her last word—“foreign”—is the only clue to finding the killers, but it also threatens to unleash a storm of anti-immigrant violence. Good thing all these issues have been resolved since the 1990s!

As a result, Wallander is forced to tackle a gruelingly slow investigation while also dealing with more tangible threats of civil unrest. This is what’s great about Faceless Killers: Mankell builds incredible suspense while avoiding the typical plot beats of a crime novel. As a purely literary work, it may be the best in the Scandinavian noir canon.


Jo Nesbø

Nesbø, a former footballer, rock’n’roller, and stockbroker, started writing crime fiction on a lark; a publisher asked him to write his memoirs, and he ended up with 1997’s The Bat, the first adventure of Norwegian police detective Harry Hole. At first glance, Hole is way too clichéd to be a compelling character: he’s a hard-drinking cop who doesn’t play by the rules, but he gets the job done, dammit. What distinguishes him is how far Nesbø is willing to go: he’s frank about Hole’s near-pathological hatred for authority, his debilitating addiction to alcohol, and (at least in the later books) his unfortunate tendency to sustain disfiguring injuries.


Where to Start: The Snowman


Unless you’re putting a postmodern spin on the detective novel (looking at you, Paul Auster), crime fiction demands that mysteries be solved. Most authors, unfortunately, find it far easier to create a tantalizing mystery than offer a compelling solution. Nesbø does not have this problem. He’s one of the few crime writers whose endings can support the weight of their beginnings. That’s never more clear than in The Snowman, in which Hole has to catch Norway’s first serial killer. Over the course of the investigation, our hero will sleep with an engaged woman, mess around with bodies that have been donated to science, act creepy on national television, and shoot up in order to prove a point. For a lesser novelist, the number of plot twists and red herrings here would provide enough material for five books; for Nesbø, it’s all part of his most accomplished work to date.

Petey Menz is a freelance writer and former college radio DJ. Follow him on Twitter.


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