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Nordic Noir

Once the land of unbroken winter darkness, Scandinavia has become the home of endless exposition.  Initially, it was assumed that the appeal of Nordic Noir was confined to those Britons alienated by destructive neo-conservatism.  They read Scandinavian crime because it helped them imagine a world that had not been changed by Thatcher.   But the phenomenon quickly spread to the USA and soon Scandinavian crime appealed to both right and left wing readers.

This should be no surprise.  The term Nordic Noir is oxymoronic hype.  Admittedly, the novels contain cynicism but none grasp the nihilistic vacuum described in the American crime of Cornell Woolrich and Horace McCoy.  Compared to those fierce critics of existence, Henning Mankel, Steig Larsson and Jo Nesbo are almost cheerful.  None of the Nordic crime writers attempt to whitewash society, even their Scandinavian societies that rank high on every measurement of social and economic health and progress. But even the feel good private eye novels of Ross McDonald manage a condemnation of the economic elite that is beyond Nordic Noir.   Larsson and company imagine an elite where a few bad apples misuse their power.   In the novels of McDonald, private eye Lew Archer insists upon a dreadful truth.  ‘Only the sour cream ever rises’, says Archer.  The Swedes are far too reasonable to settle for the good old-fashioned angry contempt of noble losers.

Like McDonald, the Scandinavian writers are obsessed with the investigator.  Nordic Noir is good at recreating authentic investigations.  Jo Nesbo has an eye for police procedure and he knows how to make a story rattle along.  But if his books begin very well they soon trip over the dialogue.  His plots are clever but have no regard to authenticity because Nesbo is obsessed with the need to crank up the surprises for the reader.  If you like a puzzle being pulled out of shape then you will like Nesbo.   Many do but as one turns the pages the stories in his books become increasingly absurd, which is a shame because the man is a real talent.  Henning Mankel is also a gifted writer and a hugely impressive human being.  His left wing politics and books are rooted in decency.   Some critics have condemned Wallander, his hero, as a cliché.  True, the troubled policeman type is familiar but Wallander compares well to his English equivalents.  There is nothing original in the character of the Scottish detective Rebus and Morse is used relentlessly as a sentimental opportunity to romanticize failure.  Their authors too easily regard Rebus and Morse as superior to the world in which they exist.   Wallander is merely flawed and prone to depression.   He may be yet another troubled copper who drinks too much but at least he is not boringly alpha male like the others.   Unlike the books featuring Morse, there is no nostalgia for the past in Nordic Noir.  It may be this quality that persuades readers to believe the books offer a bleak vision.

Nordic Noir has been hailed because the books reveal a culture that takes crime writing seriously.  In England, serious authors supposedly write literature and avoid genre fiction. These serious authors think of the crime novel merely as a way of paying the rent.  Literary snobbery may exist in the UK and the USA but it was in the USA that Hemingway inspired crime authors to believe that the crime novel could achieve a poetical style and tell us something about the grim lives of the excluded.  There have been no similar stylistic breakthroughs in Nordic Noir.   The books avoid metaphor and usually contain unnecessary padding and detail. 

Steig Larsson has his fans because of his critical attitude and he is admired for his left wing hostility to those in power.   The character, Lisbeth Salander, who featured in his successful novels, is regarded as the ultimate heroine, a woman capable of protecting the world from the still possible fascist nightmares.  But Lisbeth is herself a fascist fantasy, not really damaged as claimed but gloriously wounded like a female James Bond.  The scene in ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ when Lisbeth kills her abuser is deservedly famous.  Some actually find it inspirational. The scene is actually both ludicrous and, because it imagines such a conclusive triumph for the abused, quite glib.

I have to be careful about being a reactionary.   After all, as the song says,  ‘they told Marconi, wireless was a phony.’  Larsson, Mankell and Nesbo are all accomplished craftsmen.  But if the crime novel is taken seriously in Scandinavia the result has only been books that are ambitious in scope.  As Chandler almost said in ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ the best crime writing has artistic stealth.  It gives the reader something of merit that the reader may not possibly want.  Nordic Noir consists of crowd pleasers written by serious and quite admirable Scandinavian citizens.

But they suit the modern world.   The famous scene in ’The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ may be flawed but it resonates because it exposes the weaknesses within social democracy.  It combines well the misuse of power with sexual abuse and it is a reminder of where we chillingly stand with our progressive ideals.   Marx told us that we should create a world that would be based on fairness and support for the disadvantaged.   Later, Freud was being told about incestuous abuse by his patients.  And this is why Nordic Noir and that scene is important.  Marx preceded Freud and anyway the great Viennese assumed that the tales of incest that he heard were mere fantasy.   If only the two men had met and if only Freud had understood what he was being told.  Perhaps we would have not rooted our social economic revolution in such naive understanding. Scandinavian government has provided benefits for the people.  But the cynicism in Nordic Noir is not merely dissatisfaction with a lack of perfection.  It exists as a reminder that we need to think again. 

Howard Jackson