From Iceland — What's So Great About Nordic Crime Fiction?

What’s So Great About Nordic Crime Fiction?

Published May 11, 2012

What’s So Great About Nordic Crime Fiction?
Photo by

About a dozen years ago, a groundswell of interest in Nordic crime fiction began to gradually grow with appearance of Peter Høeg’s intriguing tale of ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow’. Around the same time a British publisher, who had clearly gone out of his way to find an Icelandic-speaking Englishman, contacted me with a request to comment on a book by an unknown quantity from Iceland. I produced a fairly favourable report on one of Arnaldur Indriðason’s first novels, with the verdict that even if that particular one didn’t suit them, this guy would be worth watching.

The publisher has been bringing out Arnaldur’s books ever since.

Gimme fiction, Nordic fiction

Nordic crime fiction has since become increasingly available in English, represented primarily by Swedish and Norwegian writers, with a handful of Danish, Finnish and Icelandic authors in the mix.

The word on the qualities of Nordic crime fiction is out in the open, gone mainstream with the arrival of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of blockbusters. But let’s backtrack a decade or three. At the end of the sixties, a series of exotic crime stories appeared in English. Written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Martin Beck novels were a breath of fresh air and shone a bright new light on aspects of Scandinavian life that none of us had suspected existed. But then everything went quiet again, with their ten outstanding books relegated to odd corners of bookshops and libraries as an oddity that couldn’t be easily pigeonholed—until now.

Today, English-language readers are spoilt for choice with a host of talented crime writers being hastily translated following Stieg Larsson’s success, preceded by that other top-selling Swede, Henning Mankell, both of them launched into English by canny British publisher Christopher Maclehose who also set the ball rolling with Miss Smilla. Most of what we are seeing is making its way to English from Sweden and Norway. Liza Marklund, Jo Nesbø, Camilla Läckberg and others are filling the shelves, while writers from Finland, Denmark and Iceland are largely being pulled along with the flow—plus a few outsiders with the impertinence to set their work in Nordic countries.

From a dearth of Nordic crime a few years ago, there’s now so much available that it would be practically a full-time job reading through it as it appears.

But it’s worth remembering that what we’re discovering now is only what readers in Germany have known for years. Let’s face it, we native English speakers don’t read much foreign stuff. Fiction in translation represents a tiny percentage of books published every year—making Stieg Larsson’s grand arrival even more remarkable.

How do they translate? 

While Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir have made it into English, there are other fine Icelandic writers who haven’t been able to follow, despite success in Germany. Even Denmark’s king of crime fiction, Jussi Adler-Olsen, who sells by the truckload in Germany, is only just set to appear for the first time in English this year.

What has certainly helped Arnaldur and Yrsa is that their first books were translated by the mighty Bernard Scudder with a lightness of touch and a sensitivity that made them almost better in English. Such is the importance of the translator that a good translation can make a good book shine—but equally a poor translation can ruin a fine book in the transition from one language to another, and any writer is entirely at the mercy of his or her translator.

The attraction of Nordic crime fiction is largely about touch and feel, the atmosphere of the Nordic countries is subtly different yet still familiar. In spite of its ferocious winters, Scandinavia is perceived as being a safe and comfortable part of the world, so the portrayal of evil deeds in these cosy surroundings provides much the frisson that crime fiction demands.

Crime writing isn’t so much about crime as location and character, the regular players as well as the transitory villains, and Nordic crime fiction’s sleuths tend to be real, highly believable types—complete with flaws. Arnaldur’s Erlendur and Yrsa’s Þóra carry with them convincing baggage that takes the reader straight to Iceland.

But what is striking about Nordic crime fiction is the undeniable quality of the writing. This is good stuff, well written and paced, in a genre that has seen a shortage of good homegrown stuff in recent years. Is Nordic crime fiction (in English) here to stay—or is this a flash in a fashionable pan?

Stieg Larsson is bound to be followed by a host of imitations in the same way that Harry Potter spawned a brood of youthful magical lookalikes. So what’s next? My guess is that Nordic crime is here to stay once the Stieg Larsson brouhaha has died away. But, crime buffs, watch out for Mediterranean Noir with its sharp smell of garlic, pastis and sun-baked machismo—and as good fiction tends to spring from turmoil, watch out for the Irish. There’s a band of writers in the Emerald Isle with plenty to prove. Don’t forget you heard it here first.   

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!


Show Me More!