Nordic noir

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Nordic noir, also known as Scandinavian noir or less formally Scandi noir, is a genre of crime fiction often written from a police point of view and set in either Scandinavian or one of the other Nordic countries. The language is plain and deliberately avoids 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. The popularity of the genre has extended to film and television, such as The Killing and its American adaptation, Marcella, and The Bridge and its French-British and American adaptations.[1][2]


A collection of “Nordic Noir” at a Helsinki library, including works by Liza Marklund and Jo Nesbø.

Origins of the genre[edit]

There are differing views on the origins of the Nordic noir genre, but most commentators agree that the genre had become well established as a literary genre and in film and television by the 1990s; Swedish writer Henning Mankell has sometimes been referred to as "the father of Nordic noir."[3]

Henning Mankell notes that the Martin Beck series of novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö "broke with the previous trends in crime fiction" and pioneered a new style: "They were influenced and inspired by the American writer Ed McBain. They realized that there was a huge unexplored territory in which crime novels could form the framework for stories containing social criticism."[4] Kerstin Bergman notes that "what made Sjöwall and Wahlöö's novels stand out from previous crime fiction – and what made it so influential in the following decades – was, above all, the conscious inclusion of a critical perspective on Swedish society."[5]

In the 1990s Henning Mankell's books on "Kurt Wallander" made the genre a mass phenomenon, and was adapted in film and television. Norwegian author Karin Fossum's books on "Inspector Sejer" were also highly influential and widely translated.[6]

British author Barry Forshaw, writing in Nordic Noir, suggested that Peter Høeg's atmospheric novel Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow was "massively influential" as the true progenitor of the "Scandinavian New Wave" and, by setting its counter-intuitive heroine in Copenhagen and Greenland, that it inaugurated the current Scandinavian crime wave.[7]

One critic opines, "Nordic crime fiction carries a more respectable cachet... than similar genre fiction produced in Britain or the US".[8] Language, heroes and settings are three commonalities in the genre, which features plain, direct writing style without metaphor.[9]

The novels are often of the police procedural subgenre, focusing on the monotonous, day-to-day work of police, though not always involving the simultaneous investigation of several crimes.[10] Examples include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels by Stieg Larsson,[11] Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander detective series, and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels.[12]

The term "Nordic noir"[edit]

Until the 2010s, the genre had no particular name, but was sometimes referred to descriptively as "Nordic crime fiction" or "Scandinavian crime fiction". Within the Nordic countries themselves, this is still the case.

In the English-speaking world, the term "Nordic noir" was coined by the Scandinavian Department at the University College of London and gained further usage in the British media in the 2010s beginning with the airing of the BBC documentary called the Nordic Noir: the Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.[13] The Guardian also referred to The Killing as Nordic noir.[13][14] These factors underscore that the term is considered typical of a phenomenon seen as uniting the viewpoint of foreign eye towards recognizable Nordic context.[13] Nordic noir remains a foreign term, as it is not used in the Nordic countries.

Common features[edit]

Some critics attribute the genre's success to a distinctive and appealing style, "realistic, simple and precise... and stripped of unnecessary words".[9] Their protagonists are typically morose detectives[15] or ones worn down by cares and far from simply heroic.[9] In this way, the protagonists' lives cast a light on the flaws of society, which are beyond the crime itself.[16] This is associated with how this genre often tackles a murder mystery that is linked with several storylines and themes such as the investigation of the dark underbelly of modern society.[17] This is demonstrated in the case of the Insomnia films, which featured crime-solving linked to the decline of the Nordic welfare state.[18]

A description of Nordic noir cited that it is typified by a dimly lit aesthetic, matched by a slow and melancholic pace, as well as multi-layered storylines.[17] It often features a mix of bleak naturalism and disconsolate locations, with a focus on the sense of place where bad things can happen.[15] These were the distinguishing emotions of the series Bordertown, which were further combined with an atmosphere arising from the fear of Russia.[15]

The works also owe something to Scandinavia's political system where the apparent equality, social justice, and liberalism of the Nordic model is seen to cover up dark secrets and hidden hatreds. Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, for example, deals with misogyny and rape, while Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers focuses on Sweden’s failure to integrate its immigrant population.[9][19]

On television[edit]

The term "nordic noir" is also applied to films and television series in this genre, both adaptations of novels and original screenplays. Notable examples are The Killing, The Bridge,[20] Trapped, Bordertown and Marcella.[1]

At least one cultural commentator[21] suggests the British but heavily Scandinavian-influenced Shetland Isles and Outer Hebrides have produced authors in an allied, if not precisely identical tradition. Best-known exponents being Ann Cleeves, whose Shetland books have been adapted for television, and Peter May's Lewis Trilogy. The relatively slower narrative pace of UK crime dramas Broadchurch, The Missing and River is also credited to the "Scandi noir" influence.[22]

The English-language TV series based on Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone novels has been likened to Nordic noir. Featuring Tom Selleck as the brooding, introspective, laconic hero with a stronger moral compass than the worthies of the town who recruited him specifically not to make trouble, the Paradise Police Department in the chill, bleak coastal community of Paradise, Massachusetts (loosely based on the real town of Marblehead) seems to be—at least visually and thematically—set firmly in the Scandinavian crime tradition not despite its setting but because of it.[citation needed]

Other English-language TV and cinematic adaptations have been more or less successful, although subtitled original programmes have proven more popular with British audiences. International adaptations such as Sky Television's French/British The Tunnel (adapted from the Swedish/Danish The Bridge) have their own identity whilst retaining a stylistic and thematic affinity with the original series. While American cinema brought the English language movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to a worldwide audience, receiving plaudits and was a box-office success, the American adaptations such as The Killing have fared less well critically[23] and have proven less popular in terms of audience reaction than original productions, an example being the enduring interest in Arne Dahl's Intercrime series, originally titled The A Team, and its TV adaptations.


Authors who have contributed to the creation and establishment of the "Nordic noir" genre include:[7]


  1. ^ a b Hale, Mike (24 October 2017). "In Three Nordic Noir Streaming Series, Women Investigators Fight the Chill". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  2. ^ "Netflix goes Nordic Noir with new Swedish thriller". 8 September 2017. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  3. ^ Nordic noir author Henning Mankell loses battle with cancer
  4. ^ Mankell, Henning (2006). Introduction to Roseanna. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-743911-3
  5. ^ Bergman, Kerstin (2014). Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir. Mimesis International. ISBN 978-88-575-1983-8
  6. ^ Barry Forshaw, Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, Oldcastle Books, 2013
  7. ^ a b Forshaw, Barry (2013). Nordic Noir. Pocket Essentials. ISBN 978-1-84243-987-6.
  8. ^ Forshaw, Barry (July 8, 2011). "New stars of Nordic noir: Norway's authors discuss their country's crime wave". The Independent. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  9. ^ a b c d "Scandinavian crime fiction – Inspector Norse – Why are Nordic detective novels so successful?". The Economist. March 11, 2010. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  10. ^ Miller, Laura (January 15, 2010). "The Strange Case of the Nordic Detectives". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  11. ^ "Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction". BBC. August 21, 2011. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  12. ^ "Nordic Noir and the Welfare State". The New York Times. March 19, 2010. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  13. ^ a b c Garcia, Alberto (2016). Emotions in Contemporary TV Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 138. ISBN 9781349849369.
  14. ^ Frost, Vicky (2011-11-03). "The Return of The Killing". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-01-18.
  15. ^ a b c Mrozewicz, Anna Estera (2018). Beyond Eastern Noir: Reimagining Russia and Eastern Europe in Nordic Cinemas. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 17. ISBN 9781474418102.
  16. ^ Hansen, Kim Toft; Peacock, Steven; Turnbull, Sue (2018). European Television Crime Drama and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 27. ISBN 9783319968865.
  17. ^ a b Hansen, Kim; Waade, Anne (2017). Locating Nordic Noir: From Beck to The Bridge. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 17. ISBN 9783319598147.
  18. ^ Hjort, Mette; Lindqvist, Ursula (2016). A Companion to Nordic Cinema. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons. p. 444. ISBN 9781118475256.
  19. ^ Marc Sidwell, "Sweden turns the page and Scandinavian noir explains why", City AM, August 28, 2012
  20. ^ "Nordic Noir & Beyond". NordicNoirTV. Retrieved 2016-04-15.
  21. ^ Tonkin, Boyd (29 December 2012). "The new wave of 'Nordic' noir comes from within the UK". The Independent. Independent Newspapers. Retrieved 28 April 2016.
  22. ^ Lawson, Mark (15 March 2017). "Scandi noir is dead". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  23. ^ Hale, Mike (28 March 2012). "The Danes Do Murder Differently". New York Times - Television. New York Times. Retrieved 30 April 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bergman, Kerstin (2014). Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir. Mimesis International. ISBN 978-88-575-1983-8
  • Forshaw, Barry (2013). Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials. ISBN 978-1-84243-987-6.
  • Nestingen, Andrew & Arvas, Paula, eds. (2011). Scandinavian Crime Fiction. University of Wales Press.

External links[edit]