Scandinavian Noir: Bleakness and Joy

Zernez: Räumung der Strasse nach Brail bei Punt Nova vom LawinenThe most famous work of Scandinavian Noir is Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Of course the artistic genre we now call Noir was not called such in Shakespeare’s day, but Hamlet shares many Noir characteristics. I, personally, enjoy Wikipedia’s definition of Scandinavian Noir: “a genre of crime fiction written from a police point of view. The language is plain and eschews metaphor, the settings often have bleak landscapes, and the mood is dark and morally complex. The genre depicts a tension between the apparently still and bland social surface in the Nordic countries, and the murder, misogyny, rape, and racism it depicts as lying underneath. It contrasts with the whodunit style such as the English country house murder mystery.” I could not write a better definition.

I first heard the term Noir (which is, of course, the French word for black) being applied to certain kinds of films. Generally filmed in black and white, these films dramatically juxtaposed the dynamism between light and shadow, had a somewhat world-weary, cynical protagonist, and dealt with some sort of crime. Some of the great examples of Film Noir are Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder, The Maltese Falcon directed by John Huston, and the Orson Welles masterpiece Touch of Evil

I first discovered Scandinavian Noir in the best possible manner, or, depending on how one looks at it, the worst. I started with the undisputed master, Henning Mankell. For many years I had been (and still am) a disciple of the great John D and his incomparable Travis McGee series. One day, depressed because I had read all 21 McGee novels many times over and felt that some kind of elusive magic was forever going to be missing from my life (all the true readers know this despair), I did a deep internet dive to find something, anything, that would bring me the same wonder that John D. gave me. In some dusty corner of Google I found a small description of a series of books with the same protagonist (this is key), Wallander and they were written by Swedish author Henning Mankell. I promptly checked out the first novel Faceless Killers, and a lifetime obsession was born.

I suppose that I am predisposed to become obsessed with Scandinavian Noir. When young, I was a member of that maladjusted tribe of solitary, bookish wanderers lurching around alternately muttering to myself or recumbent for marathon stretches of reading. I have walked through 4 screen doors with my nose buried in the spine of a book. As a teenager I discovered The Germans: Hesse, Mann, and Nietzsche. This discovery swelled my head beyond barometric possibilities and made me insufferably smug. As I became an adult, I  realized that I knew nothing and my favorite Scandinavian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard gave me an indelicate shove down this thorny path. Kierkegaard wrote this in his diary: “Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth — look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.” This quote could well be the manifesto for Scandinavian Noir.

I can sense the reader may be thinking, “this guy is not making a good case for this kind of literature. What do I want with some depressing, bleak entertainment. I may as well stick a thumbtack through my pinky toe and call it even.” Do not abandon hope, all ye who enter here. These novels are set in a bleak, cold world, but there is a stark beauty in many of them. There is a Sisyphean struggle against the forces of evil that is noble in its unceasing permanence. There are heroes out there, and in the Scandinavian Noir world, they are women and men police officers. The police procedural is a very effective way to examine the social, political, economic, and natural forces that forge a landscape. In these novels, Sweden is much different than Norway; Denmark a much more “European” place than the arctic taiga of Finland. Henning Mankell used his Wallander series to examine what effects, both beneficial and deleterious, Social Democracy had on his beloved Sweden. These are crime stories, sure, and they are well-written, engaging, and exciting; but they are really social commentaries. I have learned much more about Iceland (some consider it Scandinavian, some do not. I consider its crime fiction very much Scandinavian) from the wonderful novels of Arnaldur Indridason than from any non-fiction book about this lovely, volcanic island. Those who are sufficiently curious and intrepid to set off into the snowy north of Scandinavian Noir will return cold, maybe a little frostbitten, but also much the richer for all of the knowledge gained.

Here are some of my favorites in no certain order:


Henning Mankell– Sweden
Arnaldur Indridason– Iceland
Jo Nesbo– Norway
Ake Edwardson– Sweden
Camilla Lackberg– Sweden
Hakan Nesser– Sweden
Leif G. W. Persson– Sweden
Anne Holt– Norway
Jussi Adler-Olsen– Denmark

A note on two other authors: I would be remiss not to mention Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. It is not strictly Noir, but it is Swedish and it is an excellent series. Also, there is another subset of police procedurals that I feel should be mentioned here. Japanese Noir is something I just made up (I think) but I feel that the amazing novels of Keigo Higashino somehow fit. They are remarkable examinations of Japanese society.

TV Series

Wallander- This is an outstanding tv series done by the BBC and Kenneth Branagh, with Branagh as Wallander.
The Bridge– Sweden and Denmark
Arne Dahl– Sweden
Martinsson– Sweden
Borgen– Denmark

Selections from our FREE Streaming Service Kanopy

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Seventh Seal– Really any film by Ingmar Bergman
Wild Strawberries
Force Majeure
Let The Right One In

That’s all for now. There are many more but brevity bids me leave. Please call or visit your local library if you have questions or you can call 828-586-2016 and ask for Ben Woody if you want more suggestions for the coldly delicious genre of Scandinavian Noir.




9 thoughts on “Scandinavian Noir: Bleakness and Joy

  1. “I was a member of that maladjusted tribe of solitary, bookish wanderers lurching around alternately muttering to myself or recumbent for marathon stretches of reading. I have walked through 4 screen doors with my nose buried in the spine of a book.”
    I can see it now.


  2. Since you didn’t mention the Martin Beck stories by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, I’m assuming you somehow have missed these noirish looks at Swedish society from the perspective of a police procedural. The books were written for a decade beginning mid-60s and ending when Wahlöö died so they were roughly contemporaneous with MacDonald and McGee.

    Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote alternate chapters for each of their ten books, a creative process I find astounding. I don’t know if they are still in print. I have my copies stashed away, haven’t seen a used copy in forever. People have produced a number of films/TV shows based on the books which I haven’t seen.

    Here’s an informative interview of Sjöwall from 2009:


  3. There’s noticeably a bundle to know about this. I assume you made sure good factors in options also.


  4. Hi, Ben.
    You suggested a book by Indridason to me several years ago and have given me hours of wonderful reading. The Scandinavian authors are truly fascinating.


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