The top eight Nordic noir novels of 2018

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Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. They were the domain of the Northmen, the dreaded pagan hordes that swept through Europe around the end of the first millennia with their crazy, one-eyed gods, war hammers and long blonde hair. A similar though altogether more pleasant invasion has occurred over the past decade or so, this time spearheaded by Nordic crime literature and, latterly, Scandinavian crime dramas. It’s something that has permeated our website. However, in 2018 we detected a slowing of interest in Nordic noir and it didn’t seem as though there were quite so many big releases. That’s not to go against the quality of what’s on our list this year, but it does explain why we went for eight and not 10 novels this time. However, if you’ve read a great novel from Scandinavia and you think it should have been on our list, be sure to post a comment in the space below.

8 – Unrest by Jesper Stein

Maverick cop Alex Steen, in the shadowy surroundings of Copenhagen’s Norrebro district, is a new name to watch. Jesper Stein’s series is being adapted for television and the first novel appeared in translation in 2018 courtesy of David Young. Steen has a lot on his hands as a body is discovered under a tree, in a cemetery. The man has been handcuffed, so at first glance it could be a case of an arrest gone wrong and police brutality. Before Steen can truly get to work, Denmark’s national security agency swoops in, taking a disproportionate interest in the case. Meanwhile, an activist out there has video footage of the killing, someone’s hunting that activist, and the Albanian mafia also have a foothold in the story. Insightful characters, an exciting thriller, and plenty to play with for the screenwriters. Read our full review here.
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7 – After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen

Jussi Adler-Olsen, Peter Hoeg, Agnete Friis – Danish crime authors are excellent when it comes to offbeat characters and stories that shift the pace and the tone of Nordic noir crime fiction. So why not dip into After the Death of Ellen Keldberg, written by the Danish filmmaker Eddie Thomas Petersen and translated by Toby Bainton? Skagen in Jutland is the setting, a coastal holiday community that is booming in the summer and frigid in the winter. Why did the eponymous Ellen go out and sit on a bench, and freeze to death during a snowstorm? Or, has something sinister happened to her? Photographer Anne Sofie and Ellen’s nephew Mikkel want to find out and as they look into it the town’s complex relationships unravel within the book’s claustrophobic, snowed-in atmosphere. Read our full review here.
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6 – Palm Beach, Finland by Antti Tuomainen

Antti Tuomainen dares to be different. He is from Finland, after all. But more than that he’s a crime author who doesn’t seem one bit interested in creating a series and then developing characters that he can fit stories around. No, he writes standalone novels and while his first few were darkly poetic – such as The Healer and Dark As My Heart – his newer ones show a flair for capers and sardonic humour. The latest is Palm Beach, Finland, translated by David Hackston. As with entry seven, we are in a holiday resort where, in somewhat surreal fashion, Jorma Leivo is selling Finns the dream of a beach holiday without, well, most of the things you associate with a beach holiday. A woman called Olivia Koski stands in his way, and it is in her kitchen that a dead man is found. The police, in turn, hire an undercover detective to investigate what’s going on. It’s like Jimmy Buffet meets Ibsen and tries to sell him a poisoned snow cone. Read the review here.

5 – Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir

The Icelandic author Lilja Sigurdardottir’s second book, Trap, continues the story of her drug mule heroine Sonja Gunnarsdottir. In book one, Sonja extricated herself from Reykjavik and the clutches of its drugs barons in innovative fashion. Now hiding out in California, her troubles begin all over again when her young son Tomas is snatched and Sonja is forced to use her skills to evade customs officers and deliver packages once more. Mexican cartels, hungry tigers, violent enforcers, and Sonja’s complex relationship with money launderer and lover Agla all feature in this hair-raising novel, which has a very different vibe to most Icelandic crime fiction. The excellent customs officer Bragi also makes a return. Read our review here.
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4 – The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason

With its great Viking sagas, Iceland’s literary tradition is steeped in history and this subject was the first love of crime author Arnaldur Indridason. In this series, of which The Shadow Killer is book two, he looks at a particularly fraught period in the country’s history through the eyes of two cops – a Reykjavik detective called Flovent, and the Canadian military policeman Thorson. The year is 1941 and a travelling salesman has been found with half his head removed by the bullet that entered and exited his skull. It turns out to be far more perplexing case than expected. The victim’s woman had turned on him and run off with a hot-headed British serviceman. Meanwhile, a business rival and childhood friend of the dead man turns out to be the son of a German doctor, well known for his Nazi sympathies. Indridsason explores the changing attitudes and ways of life in Iceland from many perspectives in the Shadow Killer, and does so in a sensitive and poignant fashion. Read our review here.
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3 – Cold Breath by Quentin Bates

An Icelandic crime novel written by a Brit? Hell, yes. We’re not going to deny Quentin Bates – aka graskeggur, or grey beard – his chance to shine on this list. Bates lived and worked in Iceland for many decades, speaks the language fluently and, indeed, translated entry number five on this list. Furthermore, his latest Officer Gunnhildur Gisladottir novel is of superlative quality. This time, Gunna is given the rather odd assignment of protecting a visitor to the country from the Middle East called Ali Osman. Assassins are moving in on Ali, who Gunna finds to be both charming and menacing, and murders happening in Iceland seem to be connected to him, somehow. Gunna’s colleagues Eirikur and Helgi are investigating while she tries to keep the man safe. But is she herself in danger? A police procedural in an unusual setting with a captivating plot. Read our review here.
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2 – Dark Pines by Will Dean

Okay, so Jo Nesbo might be sending an assassin out to get us for two reasons. Firstly, this debut novel came out late 2017. Secondly, it was written by British expat Will Dean. However, we’re including it here because it only really took off in 2018, and because we reckon Dark Pines is imbued with the spirit of Nordic noir. Read it and you’ll find yourself smack bang in the middle of a boggy Swedish forest with a gigantic moose fogging up your windscreen. And if that doesn’t make you anxious, the killer in this novel certainly will. Whoever it is, they’re gunning down hunters in the woods around the town of Gavrik and collecting their eyeballs. Oh, to see what these eyes have seen! Though the police are investigating the case, it’s an outsider, journalist Tuva Moodyson, who seems to have the inside track on what’s going on. She might be deaf but by talking to the often strange inhabitants of the town she’s finding out its dark secrets and discovering motives for murder with each stone she turns. It’s beautifully plotted, incredibly atmospheric and genuinely scary toward the end. Read our review here.
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1 – Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

Top spot this year goes to the Norwegian legend Gunnar Staalesen. Everyone has heard the story about how there’s a statue of his private detective Varg Veum lurking in a doorway in the city of Bergen. But who knew that, 41 years since the character’s first appearance, he’d be at the centre of the most gripping Scandinavian crime fiction on the planet? As the title suggests, family is at the heart of the story as Veum’s half-sister turns up and asks him to look for her god-daughter Emma. Emma was on a quest to connect with family and had recently contacted her biological father, who wanted nothing to do with her. The father, Emma’s friend Asa, her room mates, her landlord – someone’s not being straight with Veum, but new twists include a rape case and the emergence of a suicide cult in the storyline. Staalesen’s expert handling of his Philip Marlowe-esque character, his skilled plotting, and continued development of a series that is an institution in Nordic noir, make this detective novel a winner. Read our review here.
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Read about the best Nordic noir of 2017 here, and 2016 here.

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