Remember a few years ago, when the entire world was reading Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.)? Right about the same time, “Nordic noir” became a thing for many of us, especially as more and more Scandinavian mysteries, particularly my favorite sub-genre of police procedurals, were translated into English. Maybe we were late to discover some of these writers, but it isn’t too late to bask in their chill.
Key to the genre is the character of the police detective. He or she is often bitter and tired of the police life. And make no mistake, these stories are character-driven. You don’t read a police procedural to learn more about solving crimes. You read them for the simple, stark prose and the worn-down hero who is usually battling demons of his own. Here are some of my favorite Nordic noir authors (in alphabetical order):
It just so happens that my favorite author comes first: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series is thrilling and funny. Carl Morck, our Danish protagonist, has been pushed into the cold case unit because like so many other detectives, he doesn’t always follow the rules. He’s surrounded by an eclectic mix of characters including a mysterious Muslim assistant, a secretary who may be suffering from multiple personality disorder, and a former partner who is barely alive. There are six books in the series so far; start with the first: The Keeper of Lost Causes. (Denmark)
I’ve only read one of Ake Edwardson’s Inspector Erik Winter books — Room No. 10. Detective Erik Winter is not as hard-boiled as most detectives and is very likeable. It’s often difficult to read Scandinavian mysteries in the proper order because they’re not always translated into English in the proper order. More have been translated from Swedish recently, though, so you can start with the very first: Death Angels. (Sweden)
I’m slowly working my way through Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer’s novels. He’s a brilliant man who solves cases not just with police skills but also a keen awareness of how humans work. Sejer is a lonely man after the death of his wife, but he’s slowly starting to get out more, as we would say. Start with Eva’s Eye. (Norway)
Similarly, Anne Holt’s older books are a bit hard to get a hold of – but Hewlett-Woodmere has many of them! I hope to read all of the Hanne Wilhelmsen novels someday. Until then, I’m enjoying the series she has starring Police Commissioner Adam Stubo and his wife Johanne Vik (a profiler). Adam is a jolly old soul and Johanne is neurotic, so they make a nice pair. Stubo worked with Wilhelmsen, so this new series picks up once Wilhelmsen retires. By the way, Wilhelmsen breaks many of the detective stereotypes simply by being a lesbian. Start Hanne’s series with Blind Goddess. Start Adam and Joanne’s series with What Is Mine. (Norway)
I would be remiss to leave Iceland and Arnaldur Indridason out of this list (especially since he’s also a favorite). At time, Indridason makes Iceland seem very uninviting – just the atmosphere you’d expect from a police procedural. But I’ve taken a liking to Inspector Erlendur (his first name due to Iceland’s patronymic naming system, which makes last names harder to distinguish). I’ve read eight out of 10 of his novels – unfortunately, the first two in the series haven’t been translated into English. So start with Jar City. (Iceland). Also from Iceland is a series by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, but her novels aren’t strictly police procedurals, as the crime solver is laywer Thóra Gudmundsdottir.
Lars Kepler is the pen name of a Swedish husband and wife (Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril) writing team. I didn’t love the first book – The Hypnotist. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was reading. But I liked it enough to want to read the next two, and the stories have gotten better. The third was quite good. The lead detective in the books is a tough Finn who likes to break all the rules. The Ahndorils may be saying something about Swedes and Finns in between the lines, but I’ve yet to discover what. (Sweden)
On my list of books to read are those by Camilla Lackberg, so it would be wrong of me to say she’s a favorite. Let’s just say instead that I’m looking forward to starting her Patrik Hedström’s series soon, which begins with The Ice Princess. (Sweden)
Everyone knows Henning Mankell’s Swedish Kurt Wallander series. Someday I will read all 11 books in the series (I’ve read a few but I want to re-read them and start at the beginning). Just keep reminding yourself that Kurt isn’t really Kenneth Brannagh (who played him for the BBC). Start with Faceless Killers. (Sweden)
Another favorite is Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, set primarily in Oslo. In truth, I recommend this series to everyone in the universe (or at least to those who come into the library). It’s also fun to tell parents that Nesbo writes a series of books for children – I’ll might show them Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, then say he writes dark and sometimes brutal mysteries for adults. I had to start in the middle with The Devil’s Star (first one translated and published in the States, I believe), but you now read them in the correct order. Start with The Bat and find out how anti-hero Harry developed his reputation. Note that Nesbo also has several non-series novels. (Norway)
There’s a whole world of Scandinavian mysteries out there to discover. Dress warmly and read accordingly. And if you’re ever confused about the order of a series, ask a librarian or try out this terrific website: Stop You’re Killing Me. http://www.stopyourekillingme.com