“Scandinavian Crime Fiction” (by Terje Thomassen)

Oil painter and graphic designer Terje Thomassen contributed the art for EQMM’s March/April 2013 cover, but he is posting today about fiction rather than art—giving us a roundup of the best mystery writers in Scandinavia. It’s a subject he knows a lot about, for he is the son of Reidar Thomassen, whose stories have frequently appeared in EQMM’s Passport to Crime department under the pseudonym Richard Macker.  At the conclusion of Terje’s post you’ll find links to titles available in English by the authors he discusses.

Scandinavia consists of the countries Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. 9.5 million, 5.5 million, and 5 million people, respectively, live in these countries. The inhabitants of these countries can read and understand one another’s languages, so books can reach a market of twenty million readers.

Henning Mankell (born 1948), Håkan Nesser (born 1950), Liza Marklund (born 1962), and Lars Kepler are among the most famous Swedish writers. Lars Kepler is in fact an alias for Alexander Ahndori (born 1967) and Alexandra Coelho Ahndori (born 1966), a married couple who write together. The duo have been the most popular crime writers in Sweden for the last couple of years, with their first book, Hypnotisören (The Hypnotist), reaching number one on the bestseller list. But the couple kept their names a secret for a long time, and some journalists even presumed that Henning Mankell was behind the alias. Another famous Swedish name is the deceased Stieg Larsson(1954-2004) who had enormous success with three books after his death. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is perhaps the most well-known to the American audience, as it was made into a movie featuring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. All three Larsson books have also been adapted by the Swedish film industry. Noomi Rapace (born 1979), who played the lead role in all of the Swedish movies, has made a name for herself in Hollywood because of her strong performances in these films. She continued with roles in Prometheus (2012) and in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011).

Jussi Adler-Olsen (born 1950), Anders Bodelsen (born 1936), and sister and brother Lotte Hammer (born 1955) and Søren Hammer (born 1952) are among the most famous Danish crime writers. The Danish writers may not have reached the same level of success as the Swedish writers, but they surely get first prize in Scandinavia for creating very strong crime TV-series. Forbrytelsen (Crime—shown on the BBC in England with subtitles as The Killing, to an enormous audience) and Broen are top-class entertainment. Broen has been made into an American version called The Bridge (2013).

Even though there are more well-known Swedish than Danish actors, the best Scandinavian movies in modern times are also made in Denmark. The most famous Scandinavian director by far is Lars von Trier. Mads Mikkelsen (born 1965) who plays the lead role in the TV series Hannibal, and also the bad guy in James Bond: Casino Royale from 2006, has made a career for himself over the last decade. Viggo Mortensen (born 1958) who plays Aragorn in The Lord of The Rings is perhaps the most famous Danish actor, and has also starred in several crime movies made in America.

In Norway there is no crime writer above or beside Jo Nesbø (born 1960). He has reached worldwide success with his crime novels about Harry Hole. The Norwegian movie Hodejegerne (Headhunters) was based on one of the books in the series, and it did well on the international market. Martin Scorsese was rumored to be about to make the first English-language movie based on Jo Nesbø’s books, but the American legend seems to be tied up in too many projects to find the time for this one. Other Norwegian crime writers well worth mentioning are Unni Lindell (born 1957), Gunnar Staalesen (born 1947), Karin Fossum (born 1954) and Anne Holt (born 1958). All of them have written novels that have been adapted for TV.

Since the writer of this post is Norwegian, I want to close this article with a little more about Norway and its crime writers. Richard Macker (born 1936) and I (Terje Thomassen, born 1968) are father and son, and Macker will soon have his ninth short story in EQMM. Richard Macker is an alias for Reidar Thomassen, but aliases are a dying breed in Norway. They were used more often in the past to separate writers who wrote books in several literary genres. The most infamous Norwegian crime writer was Jonas Lie (1899-1945). He was a government minister under Quisling when Norway was occupied by the Germans, and he was leader of the Nazi police department. He committed suicide in 1945. Before the war, he wrote a crime novel under the alias Max Mauser. Only Richard Macker and one other writer we know about use an alias in Norway today. In Norway (and I presume there has been much the same development in other countries in regard to crime fiction) we are now seeing a tendency towards much more violent and internationally focused plots in crime novels and series on TV. Like Agatha Christie, the likes of Macker and his generation often wrote mysteries that took place in a kind of closed environment. The essential part was not measuring the amount of blood and closely describing how the murder was executed. It seems now that writers want their readers to have a close encounter with the most sadistic murderers they can come up with. Not to say that this makes the crime fiction bad, but it is a development. Just think of how much more violence you can find now in children’s TV programs and video games.

When it comes to crime series on Norwegian TV, the most famous these days has to be the Varg Veum series, based on the crime novels by Gunnar Staalesen. Richard Macker had his time in the ’70s and ’80s with a series about two investigators named Helmer and Sigurdson. Another tendency in Norway seems to be that the writers have worked in the environment they write about. Jo Nesbø worked in finance before writing books set in that world, and Jørgen Lier Horst (born 1970) was a police officer before he became one of the new successful crime writers. Many more of these links could be mentioned, and it is surely positive for a writer to have had a close connection with the environment he describes in his books.

Finally, you cannot talk about crime literature in Norway without mentioning the close link it has to the Easter holiday. Nearly all Norwegian families own a cabin in the mountains, or by the sea. True to tradition, Norwegians flock to their cabins at Eastertime and read a lot of crime novels and watch crime series on TV. We even print crime riddles on milk cartons for the holiday!

Swedish authors:
Henning Mankell
Håkan Nesser
Liza Marklund
Lars Kepler
Stieg Larsson

Jussi-Adler Olsen
Anders Bodelsen
Lotte and Søren Hammer

Jo Nesbø
Gunnar Staalesen
Karin Fossum
Anne Holt
Jørn Lier Horst

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