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Scandinavian mystery novels are hot with readers

It is a world of bleak twilights and tortured souls. A world of cold dawns and dour sleuths. A world of frozen lakes and repressed detectives.

A world of winters and losers.

Yet as grim, glum and downright depressing as a Scandinavian setting for a mystery novel can be, something remarkable is afoot: Such novels continue to be fabulously popular in the United States and internationally.

In the next few months, major new whodunits set in places such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland will be released, including “The Man From Beijing” (Knopf) by Swedish literary star Henning Mankell, set primarily in his native land; “Snow Angels” (Putnam) by James Thompson, an American who has lived in Finland for almost a dozen years, set near the Arctic Circle; and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest” (Knopf), by the late Stieg Larsson, the third of his mysteries featuring the Swedish spitfire Lisbeth Salander. The initial Salander novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” first published in the U.S. in 2008, has sold more than 20 million copies in 41 countries.

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Other Scandinavian mystery writers who are catching fire with readers all over the place include Norway’s Karin Fossum, K.O. Dahl and Anne Holt; Sweden’s Hakan Nesser, Helene Tursten and Karin Alvtegen; and Iceland’s Yrsa Siguroardottir and Arnaldur Indridason.

Why now?

Why the rising fever for Nordic noir?

Every cultural question has two answers: the easy, obvious one and the right one.

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First, the easy one: Like real estate and major-league pitching, mysteries depend on location. With a great mystery, you instantly know you’re not in Kansas anymore. If it’s written by Sara Paretsky, you’re in Chicago; if it’s by Michael Connelly, you’re in Los Angeles; and on through the mystery atlas: James Lee Burke, Louisiana; Laura Lippman, Baltimore; C.J. Box, Wyoming. And it’s also true that locales take turns being trendy in crime fiction: Great Britain had a good long run with Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and, more recently, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. Italy had its moment in the mystery-novel sun with the works of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin.

But it’s more complex than that. There is a deeply unique resonance to places; one region is not the same as another. As much as we proclaim in noble speeches that the world is just one big homogenized blur, that differences don’t matter, the truth is otherwise: The ground beneath your feet dramatically affects your worldview -- especially, perhaps, if you’re a homicidal maniac or a detective in charge of catching one.

Why Scandinavia, and why now? With a global economy winding down and a global climate heating up, why are we drawn to thrillers set in places known for starkness, darkness and lengthy surnames featuring double consonants?

“Non-Scandinavians see it as a dark and cold region of the world for half the year,” muses Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries & Sleuths Mystery Bookstore in Forest Park, Ill. “What could be better for murder and intrigue?

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Cultural shift

“It’s a culture very different from ours,” he adds.

Andrew Gulli, managing editor of the Strand, the Birmingham, Mich.-based magazine that publishes mystery stories, agrees.

“A majority of us know very little about these countries, and that breeds curiosity. I think the Scandinavian mystery works because they are a very peaceful people, and we love to look beneath gentle surroundings at the dark recesses of man.”

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That vivid contrast is irresistible, he adds.

“It’s the same reason spy novels always have scenes in amusement parks. While a childhood tune is playing on a carousel, two men are exchanging secret information.”

Explore social issues

Sarah Weinman, author and critic who writes a renowned blog on mystery fiction, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, notes that Scandinavian mysteries fill a gap left by some American writers who moved away from the police procedural: “Scandinavian crime novels, in a way, hearken back to more traditional types of crime fiction.”

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Indeed, fictional detectives such as Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, Fossum’s Konrad Sejer, Dahl’s Frank Frolich and Nesser’s Van Veeteren methodically track down the bad guys (or gals) clue by clue, visiting one dank, rundown location after another.

Scandinavian mysteries also tend to use criminal investigations as a way to explore pressing social issues such as immigration, economic inequities, the treatment of the elderly and impoverished, and sexual mores. Thompson, whose “Snow Angels” introduces a Finnish police inspector named Kari Vaara, was born and raised near Ashland, Ky. He believes the singularity of Finnish culture accounts for Americans’ enthrallment with it.

“Finland is an eccentric country,” he says. “It hasn’t been exposed to the world that much. It’s cold and dark, and the people are fairly silent.”

Fortunately, however, the writers aren’t silent at all. As more and more Scandinavian crime fiction is published in English, another reason for its popularity becomes clear: It’s great stuff. “The quality of the writing of those authors who do cross over” to the English-speaking world, declares Weinman, “is by and large very good.”

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Indeed, the prose in many Scandinavian mysteries is imbued with a spare crystalline beauty, a sort of haunted, Hemingwayesque reserve. As Dahl writes in “The Fourth Man,” first published in English in 2009, “It was cold. The sky was black, no stars, no moon. The chill air augured snow.” In “Mind’s Eye,” which also saw its first English publication last year, the detective’s ruminations are satisfyingly bleak: “The irrevocable nature of the passage of time struck him with full force. . . . The desperate inevitability of it all. We are closer to the end of the world than to that minute that has just passed by, because that is lost forever.”

Just the sort of cheery little pick-me-up that’ll get you through a drab winter.

Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune.


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