#1—Nordic Mysteries: An (Almost) Lifelong Obsession:

#1—Nordic Mysteries: An (Almost) Lifelong Obsession:

Why Nordic Mysteries?

First a definition: when I say “Nordic” I refer to mysteries that take place in, and are typically written by, authors in the following countries:

  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Sweden

According to Wikipedia, “While the term “Scandinavia” is commonly used for Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the term “Nordic countries” is used for Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland…).”

Note that I have included one author from the Netherlands because his books fit well within the general characteristics of the genre. What do I consider to be those characteristics?

  • Spare, bleak yet beautifully written prose
  • Subtle and complex characters
  • Intricate, mesmerizing plots
  • The fact that the settings, whether in Oslo or a remote corner of Iceland, are almost as important as the characters themselves
  • In the serial mysteries (and almost all of them are) the main characters grow and change from book to book as events overtake them
  • The wry humor expressed in the midst of tragedy

In the Beginning: Denmark

My fascination with Nordic mysteries began almost a quarter of a century ago, in 1995, when I first read “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”. Its original Danish title is Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, a novel by author Peter Høeg. It was translated into English by Tiina Nunnally. When I first read Smilla I knew that I had discovered a type of mystery I had never read before; my main experiences up until then had been with British mysteries. I fell in (literary) love.

What was it about this book that so captivated me? The blurb notes “Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is part Inuit, but she lives in Copenhagen.” I was drawn in by her first sentence:

It’s freezing—an extraordinary 0° Fahrenheit—and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is qanik—big, almost weightless crystals falling in clumps and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.

What happened to her language? Where is she now? Why are the descriptions of the myriad words for snow so important to her? “Smilla” is not just a mystery; it’s also a love story and a tale of a vanishing way of life that reads like pure poetry.

As always when I discover a new genre of books that I like, I look around for what else is available in English. The popularity of Nordic mystery authors that would explode with the US publication of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in 2005 was still 10 years in the future.

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What Came Next: Stockholm, Sweden

Back in the ‘80s, I frequented a used bookstore in Atlanta (no longer there) called “Oxford Too” with a large mystery section. My bookstore search first turned up a series of ten Swedish mysteries written by a husband and wife, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. As with many books in this genre by the same author, they are best read in chronological order; what is known as the “Martin Beck” series is actually numbered. The reason for this is that the novels are more than just mysteries; they also reflect socio-economic conditions in Sweden seen through the eyes of Beck, the lead detective, and his colleagues.*

All the books are gripping, with intense driven plots interwoven with reflections on life in Stockholm; don’t let that stop you from trying these books because they are essential to the genre. The first novel in the series is “RoseAnna”.

*If you have seen “The Laughing Policeman” film, it is based on book four in the series of the same name: The Laughing Policeman (1973). Stars Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, and Louis Gossett Jr. I highly recommend it.

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Next Destination: Amsterdam, the Netherlands

It was my great fortune to then discover the books by Janwillem van de Wetering, my one author outside the Nordic countries. In keeping with the genre, the books are so much more than basic mysteries. I’ll let Avram Davidson have a word on what makes his books unique:

Author of a highly acclaimed series of mystery novels, world traveller, former Zen student, and former police officer Janwillem van de Wetering brings an unusual perspective to the detective genre.  His novels and stories feature a diverse and richly drawn cast of characters and settings that range from the streets of Amsterdam to the Caribbean and from rural Maine to Japan, South America, and New Guinea.

His three main characters (a very unusual team) are Sergeant Rinus de Gier, Adjutant Henk Grijpstra, and the unnamed commissaris, their senior officer and spiritual guide (and owner of a beloved tortoise). The rewards of reading these books go far beyond the enjoyment of a good mystery plot; they venture into philosophy, spirituality (particularly Zen Buddhism) and wry humor.

The first book in the series, “Outsider in Amsterdam” was published in English in 1975. As with so many others, they are best read in order to enjoy the experiences and growth of the main characters. Click here for a complete list of books by van de Wetering; the “Amsterdam Cops” books are marked with an asterisk.

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Venturing On: Oslo, Norway and Beyond

My favorite Nordic mystery author is the Norwegian Jo Nesbo, who writes the “Harry Hole” series, commonly called “contemporary Nordic noir”. Reading these in order is highly recommended; characters and events (apart from the mystery plots) experience major changes as time goes on and are as captivating as the plots themselves. The first in the series is “The Bat”. Luckily, Waterstone’s has a great list.

If you are looking for lighthearted mysteries in a cozy vein, Nesbo is definitely not your glass of aquavit! Harry Hole has myriad demons that he struggles with throughout all of the books; the same goes for his colleagues and the few people he allows into his personal circle. But there is also a very dry humor and a complexity of storyline that make all the Nesbo/Hole books (and there are 12 of them) a must-read for mystery fans.

Here’s a short clip of Nesbo talking about his three favorite Harry Hole books: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buSH4OsB88s&feature=youtu.be

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In future blogs I will be discussing the following authors, and as always, encouraging you to buy their books at an independent bookstore!

  • Henning Mankell (Sweden)
  • Karin Fossum (Norway)
  • Håkan Nesser (Sweden)
  • Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland)
  • Helene Tursten (Sweden)
  • Lene Kaaberbøl (Denmark): Author of the “Nina Borg” series with Agnete Friis.
  • Lars Keplar (Norway)
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland)
Please share!

2 Replies to “#1—Nordic Mysteries: An (Almost) Lifelong Obsession:”

  1. Thanks for the survey. Great to get a deeper understanding of what all your friends know as a lifelong obsession (especially for those of us who’ve seen your awesome “reading room.”) As I could only hope to match the voraciousness of your reading, I do come in a very distant second (or third, or fourth…) from time to time, especially when I hit on an author or genre that hooks me (Wolfe, Macdonald, noir, Anything L.A., e.g.).
    Interesting what you say about the nexus of Place and Mystery. I have experienced this “Nordic genre” mostly through episodic television (often subtitled) and the Dragon Tattoo series (plural), though I know some of the adaptations are far from being your “favorites.” But I, too, think that this idea of “Place” being a forceful, yet tacit, character to be really palpable. Thoughts… the barrenness means that most of the visual settings are so deep into nature that man’s power is diminished, hence mystery flourishes (where rationality seems to have lost its central power)… barren being a freighted term and certainly these are lush countries, but there’s something oddly transitory about them, maybe because “voyaging” and “stopovers” are such a part of their lore, and also perhaps because so much of that region is so sparsely populated. In a kitschy parallel, “Twin Peaks” was a similarly seductive mystery, in part because of that majestic and commanding landscape (Agent Cooper liked to comment, “These TREES!”), but also because of the sparseness of characters in such an out-of-the-way “other-place.” Even in 1920s Los Angeles, noir depended on editing out of the visual narrative the rest of civilization; action took place in tight rooms or, if outside, then usually in the selective cloak of nighttime.
    Looking fwd to checking out some of your authors. (Pssst: can I get a library card?)

    1. Brad, thanks for this complimentary and thoughtful comment. You’ve got some great ideas that as the site grows will make a lot of sense to implement. And yes, the connection of the “Nordic Noir” books to time and place is one of their most seductive qualities.

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