Nordic Noir is a genre of films, novels and television series that has exploded in popularity within the last few years. The massive success of shows such as The Killing (Danish), The Bridge (Danish-Swedish), Lilyhammer (Norwegian) and Wallander (Swedish) has spurred remakes in multiple countries and a noticeable upswing in interest in all things Scandinavian.
The Beginnings (1965 – 1990s)
An early example of the genre is the seminal literary work of Swedish writing couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the creators of Martin Beck. A depressed but talented police detective, Beck is an iconic figure, not only in Swedish crime fiction but worldwide. The first Beck novel, Roseanna, was published in 1965, and yet as late as 2016, film adaptations were still being produced.
Is Martin Beck the prototypical protagonist of nordic noir? It is certainly possible. From his failing marriage and strained relationship with his children, to his often crumpled and haggard appearance, Beck’s influence is clearly visible in more recent works of nordic noir. Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s famous creation, bears notable similarities in character, and Mankell has commented on Beck’s legacy.
Imitation and Evolution (1990s – 2005)
Following the success of the Martin Beck series of novels, and subsequent adaptations for television and cinema, many similar characters began appearing. But what defines nordic noir? A common theme is moral ambiguity, and a fatalistic cynicism. This is certainly present in the Beck and Wallander series – the last book of Wallander is incredibly depressing, consider yourselves warned – and also in more recent television shows such as The Bridge and The Killing. Human failings are vividly painted across a canvas of dark nordic winters, with slushy rain and blood-stained snow.
A breakthrough in the genre came with Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), a brutally dark tale of abuse and mystery. Wildly popular, the book and its sequels dealt heavily with themes of violence, gender and corruption in contemporary Swedish society. As with Beck, Dragon Tattoo is as much social commentary as it is procedural.
International Recognition (2005 – present)
Hot on the heels of Larsson’s deeply disturbing but internationally acclaimed Millennium Trilogy (2005 – 2007), the Danish television series The Killing hit the screens in 2007. Set in Copenhagen and following Detective Inspector Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl), the series became an international hit, especially in the UK. Although subtitled, the show attracted more viewers than Mad Men and scored audience appreciation figures of 94%, hailing the beginning of the “box set era” – an unprecedented demand for more intelligent, thoughtful foreign drama. When the show aired on British channel BBC4 it became something of a cultural phenomenon, and the age of nordic noir began in earnest. British consumers have been perhaps the biggest cheerleaders of the Scandinavian ‘brand’, and nordic noir has been instrumental in this relationship.
So what next for nordic noir? The most popular shows of the genre are off our screens, but newcomers are appearing all the time. Check out the series Jordskott (2015), the novel Stallo (2012), and the Arne Dahl books and television adaptation (1999 onwards) to feed your appetite for dark, depressing, but ruthlessly readable nordic noir.