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Rooney Mara in the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Courtesy of MGM Studios

The lure of Nordic noir

Murder mysteries offer an irresistible glimpse into the dark corners of the Scandinavian soul

By Lee Simpson

Seeing the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at the video store reminds me of how Stieg Larsson made me break the Eighth Commandment. In 2009, I was stuck with the flu in a damp off-season rental in France’s Midi-Pyrénées, facing the prospect of a transatlantic flight home without an English-language book to read. The previous evening, clutching my hankie, I’d turned the final page on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. As I packed my suitcase, I glanced at the landlady’s bookshelf. There was the next instalment in the trilogy; the paperback might as well have had horns and a tail. Quickly and shamefully, I dropped The Girl Who Played With Fire into my carry-on bag.

It was the act of an addict. Since my 20s, I have been unable to control my craving for murder mysteries. It started with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey, and later progressed to P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill and Canada’s own John Brady and Peter Robinson.

The older I get, the edgier I want my mysteries to be. I don’t want cozy anymore — knitting patterns or cupcake recipes interspersed with murder don’t do it for me. Cute old-lady detectives make me long for Georges Simenon’s enigmatic Maigret and the sardonic twists of Elmore Leonard.

Oddly, I think my appetite for a good corpse-strewn read can partly be explained by the fact that I’m a person of faith. Not to cheapen the rite, but experiencing well-made detective fiction is like sitting in the pew at an inspired funeral. There is structure. You’re in the hands of a knowledgeable, sure-footed leader. There’s a dynamic tension of life and death that forces contemplation of the great whys, and a longing for a deeper understanding of what comes after. In funerals and mystery literature alike, there’s a place for humour, however dry.

These days, I’m particularly drawn to Scandinavian mystery writers. As a bunch, they tend to be quite secular, like Scandinavia itself. Yet there’s a liturgical discipline in their storytelling that I find irresistible. As with a good sermon, the “bone structure” of the plot is everything; the congregation of readers can feel the pace without longing for the end. The prose is precise, with enough contextual detail to inspire without blunting the scope of imagination. The characters of both the hunters and the hunted are lightly sketched, not burdened with biography.

With their spare prose and taut plots, most of today’s Scandinavian mystery writers pay homage to a pioneering Swedish writing team. The brilliant Martin Beck series by collaborators Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö kept me sane in the early 1980s when I was pregnant and weeks overdue. These morality plays in the guise of mystery novels seemed to be telling me that out of the chaos of life to come, there could be order. A quarter of a century later, we’re swamped with translations of mysteries by Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic authors. We are awash in Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund, Jo Nesbø and Peter Høeg. The Millennium trilogy, in particular, has sparked North America’s interest in Nordic noir. It has also opened up the mystery genre to those who might otherwise overlook (or look down upon) its comfortable conventions: its orderly staging and gimmick-free character development; its ambiguity around goodness; its clarity on the consequences of evil (you can be confident it will be punished later on in the series).

The territory Nordic noir explores is harsh and gritty — probably too harsh and too gritty for some. We Canadians are uniquely positioned to feel the pull of the heavy, dark magnetism at the heart of these stories. We know what it’s like to be continually deprived of sunshine and doused in slush, and so we appreciate the dark corners of the Scandinavian soul. The genre’s archetypal detective, Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, has never met a case that didn’t haunt him. The crimes he investigates force him to get inside the heads of his quarry and thereby unpack the baggage from his own complicated life. Yet amid this wintry gloom, we learn to expect glimpses of light: reconciliation with his daughter, a meaningful trip with his emotionally elusive father.

Though rarely expressed in overtly religious language, these moments of redemption are staples of the genre. At other times, religious imagery lurks just below the icy surface of the narrative — witness Arnaldur Indridason’s thoughtful Reykjavik police procedurals, where protaganist Erlendur Sveinsson is constantly searching for the brother who was lost in a snowstorm so that Sveinsson might live. When religion is front and centre — such as in Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm, Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher and, most conspicuously, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — it’s neatly twisted to pay homage to crime fiction’s holy trinity: motive, means and opportunity.

It’s a testament to the tautness of Nordic noir that so many novels have translated seamlessly to film. The three novels in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, for example, turned into three excellent movies made in Sweden and an equally worthy Hollywood version of the first instalment. Compare Noomi Rapace as protagonist Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Dragon Tattoo with Rooney Mara’s Oscar-nominated performance in the 2011 American remake. Both are remarkable.

The films are every bit as dark as the novels, and frequently as gruesome. Remember — Nordic noir isn’t for everyone. But if you choose to look beyond the surface of the page or the screen, you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of themes and truths that will enrich your understanding of the human soul. You’ll be transported to a place that is satisfyingly different yet oddly familiar. And you’ll be greatly entertained. You may find that a taste of Nordic noir leads to an appetite for more. Experience enough of it, and you could develop a lifelong habit. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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