CIS: Barry Forshaw’s top 10 Nordic classics

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misssmilla200Barry Forshaw is the UK’s leading expert on crime fiction. His books include Nordic Noir, British Crime Film and Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Other work includes British Gothic Cinema, the award-winning British Crime Writing, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and the first biography of Stieg Larsson. We couldn’t think of a better person to ask along to share the best crime fiction classics from Scandinavia with us…

As someone who writes largely about crime fiction and films for a living, I’ve found myself obliged to spend a lot of time with the Scandinavians – not an onerous task, I have to admit – even to the extent of writing three books on the Nordic noir genre. As yet there are no other rivals to this phenomenally popular field, but then it’s not hard to see why, given the remarkably high, continuing quality of books, films and TV adaptations from Scandinavia. From Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s highly influential Martin Beck series through Henning Mankell’s Wallander to Stieg Larsson’s groundbreaking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and from cult TV hits such as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen up to the hugely successful novels of the current king of the field, Norway’s Jo Nesbo, Nordic noir is the reigning movement in the crime field. For both the beginner and the aficionado, a guide to the classics in this essential crime genre might be useful. I am going to skip the ubiquitous Mr Larsson, and pick 10 key books:

0006547834.01.LZZZZZZZMiss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)
This is the atmospheric literary crime novel that almost single-handedly inaugurated – without trying to – the current Scandinavian invasion. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow mesmerises with its evocative use of Copenhagen locales and weather, which are so significant for the troubled, intuitive heroine. Half-Greenland Inuit, half-Dane, Smilla comes across a possible conspiracy in Greenland after the death of her friend. Most of all, it’s the poetic quality of the novel that haunts the reader.
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Laughing PolicemanThe Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1968)
These two writers – a crime-writing team – might be said to have started it all. The critical stock of Sjöwall/Wahlöö could not be higher: they are celebrated as the very best exponents of the police procedural. Martin Beck is the ultimate Scandinavian copper, and if you prefer to ignore the subtle Marxist perspective of the books, it is easy to do so. In this fourth book in the series, Beck and partner Kollberg tackle a mass shooting on a bus.
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RedbreastThe Redbreast by Jo Nesbo (2000)
Is he really ‘The Next Stieg Larsson’ as it proclaims on the jackets? He’s certainly the breakthrough Nordic crime writer post-Larsson, and more quirky and individual than most of his Scandinavian colleagues – not least thanks to Nesbo’s wonderfully dyspeptic detective Harry Hole (pronounced ‘Hurler’). The Redbreast bristles with a scarifying vision of Nordic fascism. Read Crime Fiction Lover’s interview with Jo Nesbo here, and find out more about the Harry Hole series here.
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1222-Anne-Holt1222 by Anne Holt (2010)
As ex-minister of justice for her country, Holt hardly paints a roseate picture of Norway’s urban areas and outer reaches. At 1222 metres above sea level, Finse is at the highest point on the Norwegian railway system and presents a classic, isolated setting for its mayhem. A heavy snowstorm causes a train to derail and the passengers take shelter in an old hotel. By the next morning, one of them has been murdered. A locked room – or locked hotel – mystery like no other.
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FirewallFirewall by Henning Mankell (1998)
Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is one of the great creations of modern crime fiction: overweight, diabetes-ridden and with all the problems of modern society leaving scars on his soul. Firewall is one of the writer’s unvarnished portraits of modern life, in which society and all its institutions (not least the family) are put under the microscope. In this, the eighth Wallander novel, the detective moves into new area of crime: cyberspace. Various deaths have occurred: the user of a cash machine, a taxi driver killed by two young girls.
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HeWhoFearsHe Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum (2003)
Norway’s Ruth Rendell, Karin Fossum delivers more acute psychological insight than is to be found in many a more respectable ‘literary’ novel. This is the third Inspector Sejer novel and it looks at what happens in a community when a brutal crime takes place. After a woman is murdered outside her remote cabin in the countryside, suspicion immediately falls on a mentally ill man named Errki who has just escaped from an asylum. Read Crime Fiction Lover’s guide to the Inspector Sejer series here.
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woman-with-birthmarkWoman with Birthmark by Håkan Nesser (1996)
Where does Håkan Nesser set his novels? It’s not important; his crime fiction, located in an unnamed Scandinavian country, is so commandingly written it makes most contemporary crime fare seem rather thin gruel. Nesser’s copper, Van Veeteren, has been lauded by Colin Dexter as ‘destined for a place among the great European detectives’. The Woman with Birthmark was the fourth Van Veeteren book to appear in English, and sees the detective investigating the case of two men shot dead.
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ConsortsOfDeathThe Consorts of Death by Gunnar Staalesen (2009)
Master of the Scandi private eye novel Gunnar Staalesen – a Norwegian heir apparent of American master Ross Macdonald – is on cracking form. Somewhat unusually for a Scandinavian crime novel, here we have a private detective. Varg Veum is based in Bergen and this is far from a straightforward mystery. It traces Veum’s relationship with a young boy across a number of years. The boy, who grows up as the tale is told, seems to be the link between several unsolved crimes.
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jar_city1Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason (2000)
The talented Indridason has made his mark as The King of the Icelandic Thriller with his Reykjavik-set thrillers. His debut, Jar City has been turned into a successful film in his native country, and is Indridason’s calling card. When the body of an old man is found in his apartment, DI Erlendur discovers that the murdered man has been accused of rape in the past. As the case unravels it turns out he was killed for fascinating reasons, some of which play on the worries of Iceland’s isolated, introverted population.
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easy-moneyEasy Money by Jens Lapidus (2010)
According to the urbane crime writer-cum-lawyer Jens Lapidus, Stockholm is quite as violent and dangerous as any drug-ridden American city; this gritty first book in a trilogy is something different (and on a larger canvas) than most Nordic Noir fare. Here, a young man wanting to lead the high life becomes a drug dealer, and ends up having to answer to the Yugoslav mafia. Read the Crime Fiction Lover review here.
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Get a copy of Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide by clicking the link below.

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