A few years ago we used the term ‘Scandi crime’ to describe crime fiction and TV drama from Scandinavia, but this has now largely been abandoned in favour of the snappier-sounding term Nordic Noir.
Perhaps the notion of Nordic Noir is so difficult to pin down, because, like the concept of ‘hygge’, ‘noir’ is a feeling, an interior state of mind, which cannot easily be defined. The recent race to embrace ‘hygge’ is evidence of an eagerness to sample a Scandinavian lifestyle, to infuse busy stressful lives full of air pollution and financial worries with the warm and soothing glow of hygge. But hygge and Nordic Noir are more closely connected than we’d like to think. Perhaps Nordic Noir is the other side of hygge; the dark to the light. Vanessa Thorpe describes this duality in her recent article in The Guardian. Perhaps hygge is the candlelight guarding the existential angst and dark melancholy that characterises many Nordic Noir novels and TV series.
Nordic Noir is a broad term that covers a range of literary and cultural texts, from crime fiction, to media, film and TV representations. Some critics have stated that Nordic Noir is over, and that it is time to move on. But I think that pronouncement is premature. All of this discussion of Nordic Noir is, however, very interesting to observe for me as a Danish person. Having grown up in Denmark, both Nordic Noir and hygge seem second nature to me. As the kind of child and young person who always had their nose in a book, it was impossible for me not to encounter Nordic Noir, although of course the literature wasn’t called that at the time. I never thought of it as Noir back then. I devoured the Swedish crime-writing duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series The Story of a Crime in Danish as a teenager. Before that, I enthusiastically read Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren’s detective novels for children, Rasmus and the Vagabond and the Kalle Blomquist books. In recent years, I have published academic essays on some of these texts, too, inspired by my enduring enthusiasm for them. Nordic Noir crime fiction is a fascinating and extremely varied genre. It deals with really serious subjects – the painful legacy of Nazi occupation during the Second World War; political extremism; terrorism; child abuse; and human trafficking, to name but a few.
Nordic Noir is part of my everyday life. The Nordic Noir book I am currently reading is Danish authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ bestseller from 2008, The Boy in the Suitcase, which is set in contemporary Copenhagen and Eastern Europe. I raced through this book and could barely put it down, because the seriousness of the subjects it treated was communicated through the compelling style of the crime narrative. Another Nordic Noir book I have enjoyed recently is a volume of crime short stories called Copenhagen Noir from 2011, by different authors focusing on Copenhagen settings and crime motifs.
Last Saturday I watched the first episode of Modus, a new Swedish crime series being shown on BBC4. The series is described by Radio Times as featuring “Deep snow; ice-jewelled forests; twinkling fairy lights; beautiful interior design – and women being brutally murdered”. Gerard Gilbert was less positive about Modus and Nordic Noir TV drama in his article in The Independent, in which he asked: “Has Scandi-noir become too ‘hygge’ for its own good?”
Actually, I don’t think there is any danger of that happening any time soon. Nordic Noir is humorous, dark, and unpredictable. Just like the proverbial cats that refuse to be herded, Nordic Noir stubbornly resists ‘hyggification’.