snowred starsHas the onslaught of Scandinavian crime novels spurred on by the worldwide success of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy finally reached its zenith? Time will tell. The sheer volume of Scandinavian thrillers hitting our shores and lining our bookshelves seems counterintuitive, however.  Not that I’m surprised that numerous competent, and in some cases excellent, Scandinavian writers are crime fanatics.  Crime writing is fun, and often lucrative. But such an overload of crime writing?  From Scandinavia?  And packed with so many gruesome sex crimes and homicides? What’s going on over there? Are these beleaguered countries, in addition to suffering through terminal, bone-chilling winters, reeling from an all-out plague of excessive violence, crime, murder and perversion?  I thought that was an American thing.  Isn’t it?

 No, in fact these countries are not inundated with violent crime. Not even close.  Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark have crime rates so much lower than the USA that any comparison borders on the ridiculous. Scandinavian countries typically average less than one murder per 100,000 people in a given year. In the USA, we average more than five, and sometimes closer to ten, murders per 100,000 people. Scandinavian crime rates are among the lowest in the world. These countries are considered to be the happiest, most stable and peaceful places on the planet. So let’s not entertain half-baked notions that the current glut of Scandinavian crime novels has something important to tell us about the failure of socialist democracies in Northern Europe. And let’s be aware of the irony involved when someone in Detroit, for example, hunkers down on a dark, rainy evening with a clutch of cerebral crime novels by the likes of Henning Mankell. This is somewhat akin to living in Hawaii, and reading a bunch of surfing novels written in Siberia.

Maybe the otherworldliness is part of the appeal. Perhaps the exotic northern atmospherics, the Bergmanesque meditations, and the chilled, methodical investigations seem almost quaint compared to the horrific realities of American crime. Sure, give me the moral quandaries and procedural chess games faced by Inspector Kurt Wallander any day over the utter shock and horror of Newtown, Connecticut, or the mass theater killings in Aurora, Colorado, or the daily gun violence that continues to plague the streets of Chicago. In this sense, the popularity of Scandinavian crime writing can be viewed as a light diversion, mere escapism from the grim reality of life on our mean streets.

The lasting impact of the genre here in America remains to be seen.  Is this just a passing fad, a harmless diversion, a shameless attempt to cash in on Larsson’s broad success? Or is there a legitimate literary movement going on? Readers can decide for themselves. It’s easy to understand the addictive attraction to Larsson’s Milennium books. His protagonists — the left-wing Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, bisexual hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander–are a welcome departure from the formulaic detectives and jaded powder keg policemen traipsing their way through all too many of our thrillers. And the crimes Larsson depicts are far-reaching enough to satisfy our deep mistrust of the powerful people who have slithered to the top of both state institutions and private corporations. So what if Larsson’s prose tends to be pedestrian and dull at times. Indeed, part of the charm of these books lies in the sense that they were lashed together by a very intelligent, politically astute man in a white-hot frenzy of inspiration. Larsson seems to proceed with a gut-feeling that he doesn’t have time for art; so it’s all plot, action, sex, and more action. It turns out he was right about time running out, since he died from a heart attack soon after turning the manuscript in to his publisher. The poor fellow didn’t live long enough to enjoy (or lament) his ascent to super-stardom.

But this is practically old news at this point. Larsson’s legacy is secured. The movies have been made. Millions of volumes have been sold. What about all of the other Scandinavian crime writers now crowding in on the action?

Keep in mind that Henning Mankell and Peter Hoeg were established figures well before Larsson hit the big time. Hoeg’s acclaimed book Smila’s Sense of Snow probably ensured that the Scandinavian crime genre would have gotten a boost with or without Larsson. Chalk it up to being part of the zeitgeist. But Larsson certainly tore open the flood gates. And now that publishers have rushed to cash in on what they hope is a new craze, we have a whole new crew of authors to contend with: Karin Fossum, Arnaldur Indrioason, Roslund and Hellstrom, Sjowall-Wahloo, Lars Kepler, and Leif G.W. Persson. We probably have good reason to resist jumping on any bandwagon. Part of me tends to think that if you’re going to blitz us with this many crime stories, you ought to at least be dealing with some serious crime in your homeland. Perhaps this is unfair, though. If the books succeed as pure fiction in some strange fashion, does it matter what’s really taking place in Scandinavia? What’s the harm in having some fun with these novels, if they scratch a certain itch? Anyone care to do some surfing in Siberia?

The Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo can certainly scratch quite an itch, and probably deserves to be singled out as a distinctive talent — much more so, in my opinion, than Larsson. Nesbo’s good enough to transcend any particular region, genre or fad. The Devil’s StarThe Redbreast, and The Snowman are comparable to anything on anyone’s list of great crime novels. These are tough, gritty noir extravaganzas written with keen intelligence and dark humor. They feature an alcoholic detective named Harry Hole who may be the most memorable character in the crime genre since Chandler’s Marlowe. So far, with half a dozen books under his belt, Nesbo can do no wrong. He’s the kind of writer who could write about surfing in Siberia and pull it off just fine — and probably launch a whole new genre in the process.

And yet I can’t help but speculate, at this point, as to what sort of books Nesbo or Mankell might produce should their respective homelands ever be wracked by real crime — tragic, horrifying crime of the size and scope that we deal with regularly here in America. Picture Mankell spending a few months in East Los Angeles or West Oakland or Detroit — or, God forbid, anywhere in the heavily armed, meth-fueled hinterlands of our Red States. Would he be able to cope? Would he have a stroke, or go insane?  Hopefully, he’d somehow manage to keep writing. I like to think the moody, atmospheric thrillers would go out the window, though I could be wrong.  But I bet he’d shape-shift into the gonzo, psychotic noir writer we get homegrown from the likes of Jerry Stahl, whose new book, Bad Sex on Speed, seems to be all too appropriate for our current situation — not to mention a perfect antidote to the imaginary Scandinavian crime wave.

See A Cold Night’s Death: The Allure of Scandinavian Crime Fiction by Jeremy Megraw, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library For the Performing Arts January 14, 2013





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