Why have crime novels from Scandinavian countries had such a powerful international impact?

Two months ago, I found myself sitting at a roadside tea stall in Jaipur, India. As the noise and smells assailed me, it felt quite natural to ask: what on earth am I doing here? What are my books doing here? All the way from a small country called Norway, to a large sub-continent called India!

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2014 was one of the planned stops on my spring tour, where one of the themes — Crime and Punishment — focused on Nordic crime fiction. This genre’s enormous impact is paradoxical: the Nordic countries, decidedly among the most peaceful and secure places on the globe, have produced writers who have captivated readers the world over with their depictions of brutality and murder. I’m not the only one to wonder how that could have come about. What’s the secret of Nordic noir?

In my increasingly frequent encounters with foreign readers of crime fiction, I believe I’ve come closer to an answer to that enigma. Nordic crime novels are usually considered more sophisticated than, for example, American thrillers. Readers comment that they have found our crime novels to be more than just narratives about crime. They are fascinated by what we might call ‘Nordic melancholy’, concocted from winter darkness, midnight sun, and immense, desolate landscapes. The taciturn, slightly uncommunicative heroes are lone wolves living in a barren, cold part of the world, constantly on an uncompromising pursuit of truth and clarity. What’s more, the entire idea of paradise lost is a prominent feature of Nordic crime: the social-democratic efficient society attacked from within by violence, corruption and homicide.

As far as Nordic crime heroes are concerned, I believe they are primarily distinguished by their single-mindedness and their rebellion against authority in all its facets. In addition, a great deal of space is given to the protagonist’s private life. In a crime series, readers can follow their heroes through different phases as they age and alter.

The numerous Nordic small towns presented as scenes of literary murders do not perhaps provide obvious settings for crime stories. The beautiful scenery inspires picturesque enticing descriptions of nature. But the attraction lies in the contrast between these peaceful small-town communities in their attractive settings and the brutal violent action taking place there.

The authors too are drawing attention to a social system that makes promises about protection and inclusion, but nevertheless fails many of its citizens. The crime novel has proved to be an excellent tool for revealing corruption in society, greed and misuse of power. The best Nordic crime writers use their work as an instrument of social criticism to create a new political awareness in their readers. Their stories wrest us from complacent notions of our society’s excellence and instead plant seeds of unease that makes it difficult to accept current conditions and increasingly forces us to modify our view of those who turn to crime, why they do so and what motivates them.

This characteristic of Nordic crime novels gives them a special earnestness, distinguishing them from other genre fiction and ensuring that their readers do not forget the book’s content and import after the final page is read.

The expression Nordic noir is recent, but the Nordic method of telling crime stories is almost 50 years old. In the mid-1960s, novelists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö marked the start of a unique genre with their policeman Martin Beck. Their books broke the established norms of pure entertainment. Social criticism and existential dilemmas were interwoven into the crime format, and the distinction between so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ forms of literature diffused. The crime novel gained admittance to the same market as other serious literary fiction.

In 1991, Henning Mankell wrote his first book about Kurt Wallander and eventually expanded this to a series still making its way triumphantly around the globe. Barely a decade later came Stieg Larsson’s outstanding Millennium Trilogy. This success has been crowned by Jo Nesbo’s impressive breakthrough with millions of books sold in almost 50 countries.

Nordic crime novels vary when it comes to description of landscape, characters, language, plot and action but are regarded as relatively uniform by the readers, as the writers share a common history and tradition, and have several external features in common as far as social structure, welfare, political system and values are concerned.

So to answer the question: Why has Nordic crime fiction had made such a powerful international impact? These novels possess the ability to imitate real life with originality and elegance, with linguistic precision and psychological depth while simultaneously telling an exciting and compelling story.

Jørn Lier Horst is the author of The Hunting Dogs, which won the Glass Key award for best Nordic crime novel in 2013.