Three essential Nordic crime series from Wendy Lesser’s ‘Scandinavian Noir’

Jo Nesbø
(Stian Broch)

Wendy Lesser’s new book, “Scandinavian Noir,” dissects and investigates a genre with which the author grew obsessed long before it became a global phenomenon. (Read the Times’ profile here.) It all started for Lesser with a 10-book series by lifelong partners Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Sjöwall died this week, just as Lesser’s critical travelogue was published. “As I understand it, they wrote at night when their children were asleep,” says Lesser, “and after each writing a chapter, they would trade back and forth to edit each other. She’s been quoted as saying that they were looking for a voice that was neither hers nor his, but something else. And I think the voice they achieved, which is wonderfully intimate and yet impersonal, is a big part of why their books are great.” Below, excerpted from Lesser’s book, are her three top recommendations in the genre.

The Martin Beck Police Mystery Series

By Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

These 10 books about a Swedish detective, set in the ’60s and ’70s and deeply concerned with social democracy, are my top recommendation — now and for all time. It is essential to read them in order. You may find the early books slow, but keep going; if you are not won over by the time you finishThe Laughing Policeman,” I guess you can give up, but you will have missed something terrific.

The Kurt Wallander Series

By Henning Mankell

This is my first runner-up and I recommend these books almost as highly as I do the Martin Becks. It is best to avoid the filmic renderings (particularly the ghastly Kenneth Branagh series), but don’t despair even if you have already seen the TV versions; you can still get a lot out of reading the books. Though each novel can be enjoyed on its own, they are best read in order. If you are like me, you will be unable to resist reading the last book in the series, “The Troubled Man.” Even though it is not quite up to the level of the rest, it does bring the Kurt Wallander story to a satisfying conclusion.

The Harry Hole series

By Jo Nesbø

Among those writing today, Nesbø is my favorite Nordic-noir author, though in his case I don’t necessarily recommend going through the whole series, unless you turn out to be a complete addict (as I am) and need the additional fix. The best place to start is not at the beginning — though feel free to go back to “The Bat and Cockroaches” afterward — but with the trilogy that starts with “The Redbreast,” goes on to “Nemesis” and concludes with “The Devil’s Star.” Each has a plot that completes itself within the volume, but there is a larger plot that runs through all three, and you won’t be able to put down the books until you get those final answers.