Back in 2009 Nordic crime fiction was a mainly literary phenomenon in Britain. But by 2014, everything had changed. Now the Vikings have invaded TV and can even be seen on BBC4. Sarah Lund’s Faroese knitwear has become legendary and – spoiler – poor old Kurt Wallander has retired, his detective powers blunted by Alzheimer’s disease. Nordic crime is no longer the coming wave, it’s the establishment. So now is an excellent time to speculate about the secret of its success.
The appeal of the north
For a start, these books and TV series offer great stories. With crime fiction, the entire premise ensures tension, human interest and resolution. Story and character are often treated as opposite poles in fiction: there tends to be sophistication in either one element or the other. But Nordic crime ticks both boxes, and adds a real-world complexity to boot.
An example of this is the nuanced and interesting portrayal of women, who are more likely to turn up in the investigating team than they are on the mortuary slab. Long before Scott & Bailey or Happy Valley, the gender balance in crime dramas from the Nordic countries was refreshingly true-to-life. Best of all, these women shatter stereotypes. This holds true with the exception of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, whose generic ‘alternative’ character proves the rule.
A question of justice
Where Nordic crime really shines is its depiction of the relationship between the law to social justice. Hercule Poirot sends scoundrels to prison and it is clear that justice has truly been done. In Wallander and The Bridge, however, characters take radical steps to balance the scales.
In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo this tendency reaches an extreme. There can be no doubt who the really bad guys are, nor about the extent to which they are protected by law. This element is important in terms of popularity. It reassures the reader or viewer that their interest is not simply prurient.
The characteristics of Nordic crime fiction have undoubtedly influenced English- (and even Welsh-) language crime drama. These influences are obvious in the hugely popular Broadchurch and in the more recent ITV series Chasing Shadows, whose over-literal detective hero is in the tradition of Saga Norén from The Bridge. Its success has also influenced the status of an entire genre.
A sure sign that crime fiction had achieved respectability was the positive reception for arthouse director Jane Campion’s 2013 series Top of the Lake. Unlike Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, this was not a crime story hidden by philosophical weirdness. Nor, unlike Snow Falling on Cedars, was it a crime story without a crime. Rather, here was the point at which crime fiction became sincerely accepted as an art form, stripped of meta-textual trickery. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next five years.
I’m Lynn Reynolds. My company, Lexis Writing, creates high quality content and copy for businesses in the UK and beyond.
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