Like Iceland, and Scotland too, Norway has long winters, a challenging climate, and more than its fair share of great crime fiction authors per capita. It’s one of the world’s safest countries, and yet its writers seem to know the darkness within the human soul…
Let’s take it from the top
The author to start with has to be Jo Nesbo. If his PR is to be believed, he is a veritable polymath. He’s been a footballer, a financial analyst, a rock singer and musician, but to us he’s important because of the headcase detective Harry Hole. If you want to read them in order, the first in the series is The Bat, but the character and Nesbo’s writing really come into their own in The Redbreast – first in the Oslo trilogy. The Snowman is fantastic if you want something scary and bloody, but the author seems at his most daring in The Phantom.
Around 20 million Harry Hole books have been sold worldwide. Why? Well, he’s rugged, determined and damaged, which many readers seem to like. In his interview with Crime Fiction Lover, Nesbo explained that Harry combines elements of Frank Miller’s Batman with the personality of one of the author’s old football coaches. The writing style is pacey and instinctive, belying their complex plotlines involving plenty of secondary characters and hidden agendas. There are unusual, dreamlike sequences that sometimes occur when Harry is under the influence. The character becomes like a pinball bouncing from crime scene to interrogation to rogue, off-the-clock activities. He falls in love, he falls apart, he solves a case. After a few years away, Harry Hole returns in April 2017 in The Thirst.
Just like he blended the intricacies of finance with playing power chords, Jo Nesbo also mixes up his writing. His recent noir novels Blood on Snow and Midnight Sun are written in much leaner prose, with a poetic touch to them. They focus on the Oslo underworld of the late 1970s, centred on the heroin trade, and represent some of Jo Nesbo’s finest and most touching writing.
The queen of Nordic Noir
Karin Fossum and her series detective Inspector Sejer are completely different to Jo Nesbo and Harry Hole, but they are no less compelling. Fossum writes psychological crime fiction. Do not mix that up with psychological thrillers, though. She is not interested so much in generating fear and suspense. Instead, it’s about taking you inside the mind of the criminal, making us privy to their verboten thoughts, emotions and impulses.
Her most recent books, Hellfire and The Drowned Boy, are both very moving. In each a child is murdered and you’re taken into the minds of the main players in these tragedies without knowing for certain who did it or why until the very end. The whodunit and whydunit aspects are merged through Fossum’s sublime skill, and although there is barely any action at all you can’t put them down. Her prose is beautiful – on the one hand it’s clean and functional, on the other extremely sensitive, though never flowery or melodramatic.
Karin Fossum often looks at the consequences of a brutal act not just for the victim, the perpetrator and the police, but for family, friends, colleagues and the community. Even when you know who the perpetrator is, like in The Murder of Harriet Krohn, you may well sympathise with his dilemma, desperately trying to glimpse his redeeming features. Her standalone novel, I Can See in the Dark, is one of the creepiest books you’ll ever read.
There aren’t many private detectives in Nordic noir, but the Norwegian city of Bergen is home to one of the most enduring in all crime fiction. Varg Veum first appeared in 1977 and is the creation of Gunnar Staalesen. The narration is first person, tinged with humour and cynicism, but the tone is entirely different to something like Chandler. Across 20 novels, seven of which have appeared in English, Veum deals with the most brutal crimes and some heart-breaking personal tragedies, but doesn’t quite have the tough guy veneer of the clichéd PI we’re used to. In the latest, Where Roses Never Die, you will see him cry, and you will see him at rock bottom. Twelve Varg Veum stories have been made into films in Norway, and they’re available on DVD with subtitles.
There’s not much crying in Jorn Lier Horst’s William Wisting series, set in the coastal town of Stavern. In some ways, the Wisting novels are the literary equivalent of Scandinavian design. The author’s writing is practical and cool to the touch. Emotions are restrained and minimal, though there are sharp corners and flourishes of colour here and there. To continue the metaphor, Wisting’s investigations follow a procedural pattern. Yet the dry writing is not without feeling, and where this occurs it’s so much more meaningful simply because the backdrop is under-wrought.
The first William Wisting novel to appear in English was Dregs, but the best is probably The Hunting Dogs. It’s about the release from prison of a kidnapper and murderer, who now claims he was set up by the police. The story involves both Wisting and his journalist daughter Line, whose newspaper looks into the claims. The book won the Glass Key Award in 2013. Jorn Lier Horst is the author to try if you are missing Henning Mankell’s Wallander.
Hans Olav Lahlum has written a series of four period mysteries set in the late 1960s, beginning with The Human Flies. The main player is Kolbjørn Kristiansen, who is assisted by Patricia, a wheelchair-bound woman with a brilliant mind. The murders they solve often have a political backdrop to them.
Anne Holt is the author of the Joanne Vik novels, which are set in Norway but have been adapted for Swedish television in the form of Modus, currently showing on BBC Four. The first book, Punishment, focuses on a serial killer who is taking children and Vik is a profiler helping with the investigation. The fourth, Fear Not, has been retitled Modus and is the basis for the programme.
If you are looking for more Norwegian crime on television, the series Mammon is the most notable. We’re also in for a treat this year as Walter Presents is to launch Norway’s popular crime drama, Acquitted. The film In Order of Disappearance is perfect viewing for anyone who enjoyed the TV series Fargo – check it out in our best Nordic noir movie feature.
Have we missed any stars of Norwegian crime fiction? Let us know in the comments below!