THE neat streets of Oslo are not a natural setting for crime fiction. Nor, with its cows and country smells, is the flat farming land of Sweden’s southern tip. And Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, is now associated more with financial misjudgment than gruesome murder. Yet in the past decade Nordic crime writers have unleashed a wave of detective fiction that is right up there with the work of Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard and the other crime greats. Nordic crime today is a publishing phenomenon. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy alone has sold 27m copies, its publishers’ latest figures show, in over 40 countries. The release this month in Britain and America of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the film of the first Larsson book, will only boost sales.
The transfer to the screen of his sprawling epic (the author died suddenly in 2004 just as the trilogy was being edited and translated) will cement the Nordics’ renown. The more unruly subplots have been eliminated, leaving the hero, a middle-aged financial journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and an emotionally damaged computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace, pictured above), at the centre of every scene. The small screen too has had a recent visit from the Swedish police. Starting in 2008, British television viewers have been treated to expensive adaptations of the books of Henning Mankell, featuring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander. The BBC series has reawakened interest in Mr Mankell’s nine Wallander books, which make up a large slice of his worldwide sales of 30m in 40 languages.
Larsson and Mr Mankell are the best-known Nordic crime writers outside the region. But several others are also beginning to gain recognition abroad, including K.O. Dahl and Karin Fossum from Norway and Ake Edwardson and Hakan Nesser of Sweden. Iceland, a Nordic country that is not strictly part of Scandinavia, boasts an award winner too. Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave won the British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award in 2005. The Devil’s Star by a Norwegian, Jo Nesbo, is published in America this month at the same time as a more recent novel, The Snowman, is coming out in Britain. A previous work, Nemesis, was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe crime-writing award, a prize generally dominated by American authors.
Three factors underpin the success of Nordic crime fiction: language, heroes and setting. Niclas Salomonsson, a literary agent who represents almost all the up and coming Scandinavian crime writers, reckons it is the style of the books, “realistic, simple and precise…and stripped of unnecessary words”, that has a lot to do with it. The plain, direct writing, devoid of metaphor, suits the genre well...