Live from Scandinavia

If you’re like me, when you think of Scandinavia, you envision quiet, picturesque countrysides. Maybe a farmhouse nestled between greenery-covered mountains. Kind, peaceful people who are always happy and eating fancy chocolates. You might be surprised to learn that our friends in the Scandinavian region churn out a large chunk of today’s popular crime literature. What, exactly, makes “Scandi crime” so popular? And why does so much of it come out of this particular region of the world?

In this edition’s International Corner, Scandi crime author Anders de la Motte attempts to make sense of Scandinavia’s infatuation with crime lit.

What’s Wrong With Scandinavian People?

By Anders de la Motte

Is it perhaps related to the vast amount of pickled herring the Scandinavians eat at every major holiday? Or has it something to do with the various types of high-quality alcohol we produce and later consume along with the salty little fish? Could it be the influence of our Viking forefathers?

I’ll do my best to answer all those questions, but first, being a Swede, there is a small matter of protocol that I’ve been yearning to correct.

Scandinavia, in its proper meaning, only consists of the countries sharing the Scandian mountain ridge, meaning Sweden and Norway. If we were to include Finland, Denmark and Iceland, the correct name would be the Nordic region, or just the Nordics. Still, the word, “Scandinavia” seems to have stuck with the entire region, and not even the inhabitants know the difference anymore. There, I’ve said it. Now I feel a lot better.

So what is wrong with us Scandinavian (Nordic) people, besides the obvious need to always be right? Why do so many of us write crime fiction and why does the rest of the world never seem to tire of reading it?

Let’s begin with some statistics that may shed some light on the Scandinavians.

Let’s begin with some statistics that may shed some light on the Scandinavians.

  • Crime fiction is by far the top selling genre in all the Scandinavian countries.
  • Police procedural is the dominating sub-genre.
  • The actual crime rate in the Scandinavian countries is very low compared to most other countries, and the combined police forces of the five countries just about exceed that of the NYPD.
  • The majority of crime-fiction readers are women aged 35+
  • Gender balance within the writing community is more equal in Scandinavia, but still skews toward female dominance.
  • The most popular character of Scandi crime is often, but not always, a troubled-yet-gifted cop that solves cases involving a serial killer.
  • Serial killers are VERY unusual in real-life Scandinavia.
  • So are troubled-yet-gifted cops who go after them alone.

My personal opinion is that many readers look in books for something they don’t encounter in their daily life. A bit of excitement, and even horror, that you can stop just by closing the book you are reading. And because Scandinavia is one of the most peaceful and safe regions in the world, we can’t seem to get enough of reading about violent crime, especially when the setting is somewhere familiar to us, making the suspense even higher.

This attraction to violence probably goes for most readers of crime fiction, not just Scandinavians. But why does the rest of the world take such a huge interest in Scandinavian crime literature?

What is the magic recipe that makes the genre so successful? Here’s my special brew for creating Scandi crime that will kill (pun intended) with readers the world over:

  1. Start With the Basics

In the spirit of Swedish equality, it all started with a couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who in the late 60’s and 70’s wrote books about the slightly gloomy detective inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues in the homicide division of the Stockholm police. The books broke away from the previously dominating Anglo-Saxon tradition of storytelling by being both quite realistic regarding police procedure, and by including a large social pathos, criticizing the Swedish welfare system that, at the time, was considered the best in the world.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote ten books altogether, the fourth titled The Laughing Policeman, which won the prestigious Edgar Award and propelled the books to international fame. In 1995, Mystery Writers of America rated The Laughing Policeman the second best police procedural ever written.

All the Sjöwall-Wahlöö books have been filmed numerous times; The Laughing Policeman even became a Hollywood movie in 1973, starring Walter Matthau as Martin Beck, with the setting moved to San Francisco. In Sweden, a series of 34 films will be finalized in 2016, which says something about how the popularity of the characters has transitioned to the modern day.

Recently deceased Henning Mankell and his books about detective lieutenant Kurt Wallander revived the concept of combining a procedural police story with social criticism in the 1990s. These books have also been frequent book-to-film adaptations, most notably by the BBC adaptions starring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander.

In the 2000s, Stieg Larsson took the concept to an entirely new level with his Dragon Tattoo series, featuring Lisbet Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, starting out with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m sure you have missed neither the books nor the film(s).

The series was so popular that a fourth book was recently released, this time written by David Lagercrantz, as Stieg Larsson sadly and unexpectedly passed away in 2004.

Perhaps you can say that it was Sjöwall-Wahlöö who invented Scandi crime, Henning Mankell who updated and refined it, and Stieg Larsson who made it the worldwide phenomenon that it is today. Every Scandinavian writer is in some way influenced by some—or all—of them.

  1. A Drop of Dynamics

As I mentioned earlier, Scandinavia is a relatively unknown part of the world that you hear little or nothing from. The countries are known for their generous welfare systems, and they are all ruled or have been ruled for long periods of time by social-democratic parties, emphasizing a large public sector. The Scandinavian countries have a very high standard of living, low levels of corruption, and crime rates are low (in all international comparisons), and are therefore considered safe and very desirable countries to live in. The population in general has a high level of education and is considered civilized, peaceful, and friendly—although perhaps a bit reclusive. If you combine all these factors with dramatic events like murders, power games, and acts of violence, you get an interesting and suspenseful dynamic that works well in crime stories.

  1. Lots of Location

The Scandinavian (Nordic. Sorry, last time) countries are located way up in the Northern hemisphere, meaning we have short, beautiful summers where the light never seems to end (some really northern parts even have midnight sun), and long, dark—and sometimes very snowy—winters (where the same northern parts have no daylight at all). Scandinavian nature includes vast forests, deep fjords, high fjells (mountains), tens of thousands of lakes, and beautiful archipelagos—many of these features not far from the major cities. These are all fantastic locations for any kind of story, but especially those with the most counter-dynamic.

  1. A Hint of History

The Scandinavian region has lots of exciting history, dating all the way back to 10th century Vikings. Even though we are now very peaceful, the Swedish king Gustaf II Adolf revolutionized 17th century warfare and waged war against half of Europe before being killed in battle. The weapons industry he founded is still world-leading, even though Sweden has not been at war in 200 years.

Before becoming friendly neighbors, Sweden and Denmark were archenemies for half a millennium. Finland, which was a part of Sweden for 700 years, was conquered by Russia in 1809 before declaring independence in 1917, and then suffered through a very bloody civil war. Denmark and Norway were both occupied by Germany during WWII; Sweden declared neutrality and became a playground for spies and smugglers, and Finland had it’s own war against the Soviet Union.

During the Cold War years, both Sweden and Finland were situated right between NATO and the Warsaw-pact, and the Baltic Sea was a zone of constant confrontations.

All of these factors create a very compelling backdrop for any story, not just crime.

  1. Serve It In Style

Scandinavians (in general) are efficient, engineering people; some say a more polite version of the Germans. Our trains (mostly) run on time, our roads are good, our cities well-organized, and our tradition of gathering statistics about almost everything dates back hundreds of years. A reader once suggested to me that perhaps this almost manic focus on efficiency and process optimizing also has effect on our language and storytelling.

Perhaps he was right—at least when it comes to crime fiction. Many of our stories are fairly short and to the point, with very little room for excess. In fact, the Sjöwall-Wahlöö novels were only around 150-200 pages long, and most of us Scandinavian writers (except Stieg Larsson) still finish well before the 400-page mark.

Quite a few writers in the region have had other jobs somewhat related to our stories, too. Sjöwall-Wahlöö, Liza Marklund, and Stieg Larsson were journalists. I used to be a policeman; Jo Nesbo was and still is a Norwegian rock star (Ok, bad example.). My point is that many of the Scandi crime stories are stylistically enticing, as they’re written efficiently, in a realistic way (perhaps due to previous job skills).

  1. Enjoy In Good Company

 I’m sure you’ve heard that success breed success. I’m not sure that is true, but what I do know is that the friendly competition between the Scandinavian writers definitely has something to do with the success of Scandi crime. You have to constantly improve if you are to belong to the top-tier. Every time a Scandinavian writer is successful it increases the interest for Scandi crime as a genre, something that benefits us all. Right now it is Jo Nesbo in the lead, and next year it might be me, but we all help each other sometimes, even practically with blurbs, recommendations or advice. This is one of my favorite things about the book industry.

So that’s it! Now you know everything there is to know about Scandinavian crime literature, what’s wrong with us Scandinavians, and why we (nor the world) never seem to tire of our crime lit. All that is left now is to try (another?) one of our books and see if you agree that the recipe is pretty good for a fantastic read.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing them.

Anders PhotoAnders de la Motte is the author of Game, Buzz, and Bubble. He has worked as a police officer and the director of security at one of the world’s largest IT companies.  He now works as an international security consultant in addition to being Sweden’s most exciting and innovative new thriller writer.