The Nordic countries appear to have a monopoly on crime fiction in print and on screen. So why is the world so mesmerized by the laconic northerners?
What is it about the Nordic sensibility that creates such damn good thrillers, police stories and detective fiction? The international popularity of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson has unleashed a torrent of characters and franchises, the best of which are leading the world in the genre. And the world can’t get enough, as their pride of place in every bookstore on the globe attests.
When David Fincher’s lavish Hollywood film of Larsson’s The Girl With Dragon Tattoo from Sony and MGM hits theatres in December, the appetite will only intensify. Indeed at a UK/Scandinavian producers networking session at Berlin last week, it was the UK producers who were grilling their Nordic counterparts for properties that could get the English language treatment.
Some of these books, films and series are simply brilliant. I am currently devouring 2007 Danish TV series The Killing (Forbyrydelsen) which is getting a UK airing in the original Danish-language version on BBC4 at present. Only 10 of the 20 one-hour episodes have so far aired, but it is nerve-shreddingly gripping. I am constantly surprised how the writer Soren Sveistrup and the directors on the show sustain the twists and turns of one murder investigation with such increasing tension and ever deepening intrigue.
The lead character of DCI Sarah Lund, a po-faced, shabbily kempt and fearsomely intelligent police detective played by Sophie Grabol, is the best female cop creation since Helen Mirren stepped onto the screen as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect in 1991. The US-set remake of The Killing, which shot in and around Vancouver, starts airing on AMC in April with Mireille Inos playing Sarah Linden.
Lund is another engaging Nordic creation right up there with Mankell’s Wallander character which has spawned not one but two excellent TV series, the Swedish version with Krister Henriksson and the UK version with Kenneth Branagh.
Or Arnaldur Idridason’s Icelandic cop Erlendur who spawned the Baltasar Kormakur-directed film Jar City.
Or Jens Lapidus’ Stockholm noir trilogy which spawned the hit film Easy Money (Snabba Cash), picked up for the US by The Weinstein Company and for US remake by Warner Bros.
Or Headhunters, the first film of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole character (Norway) which is being directed by Morten Tyldum and to which Magnolia has already taken US rights.
Or the Department Q books by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark) which are being brought to the big screen by Zentropa, Nordisk and ZDF.
Or Camilla Lackberg’s popular series The Fjallbacka Murders (Sweden) which which will be brought to the screen by Tre Vanner and Nordisk Film as 10 TV films and two theatrical features.
Most of the detectives share a distinctly dour Scandinavian personality veering to the fatalistic. Their personal lives are shambolic and they have experiences in their past nobody would covet. Their communication skills are lacking and they make little effort to be liked by family, colleagues or members of the public.
But it is this very sang froid which makes them so compelling as they navigate investigations into one atrocity after another against the grey skies and inhospitable temperatures of their home countries. Their relentless pursuit of the truth is all that drives them.
Nordic writers and film-makers have earned the world’s attention; the skillful storytelling and ingenious plotting shows no sign of abating and Hollywood agents and executives are spending reading manuscripts from Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen as they are from London or Paris these days.
But a note of caution amid the zeal for snapping up remake rights: English language repositioning of Nordic crime might not be as straightforward as one imagines. Both the UK Wallander TV series and Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo opted to place the stories in their original settings, recognizing that the Swedish locations and indeed national characteristics were an integral ingredient in their success. The jury is obviously out on The Killing US remake but one wonders if its unique Danish blend of piss and vinegar might get lost in translation.