Category: Nordic Mysteries

#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.

January 23, 2021: I recently came across a marvelous article by about these authors at by Neil Nyren: “Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: A Crime Reader’s Guide to the Classics”.

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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:

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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)
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