Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) is known for its catchy pop tunes, dark and cold winters and deadly noir novels. In this part of the world, the crime novel reigns supreme. Typically, Scandi crime novels depict the kind of lifestyle the characters would experience there, for example, liberal social policies and gender equality, with detectives struggling to hunt killers while maintaining a work/life balance with yearlong maternity or paternity leaves, long white nights summer holidays, alcohol dependency and extra-marital affairs. The setting rarely stretches further than Sweden, Norway or Denmark, and the social dimensions are set against the social democratic welfare state pros and cons. However, there are some brilliant exceptions that are suspenseful thrillers and take on a wider geographic and social scope and do not necessarily have a policeman or woman as the protagonist. Here’s a list of suggestions, old and new, of some cracking reads to get into the Scandinavian thriller genre.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg
Peter Hoeg’s novel about a fascinating female main character called Smilla, a loner and daughter of an Inuit mother from Greenland and a prominent Copenhagen doctor, is so gripping and chilling you actually feel the crust of snow under your feet while reading. Smilla is an expert on snow and ice, due in part to her Inuit heritage, being brought up in Greenland, where both snow and ice were plentiful, and in part to her vocation as an Artic ice specialist. When a young boy she knows, a fellow Greenlander, falls from a roof top, Smilla follows the trail of his footsteps and is convinced that he would not have fallen or jumped unless he was made to. Her investigation takes her through the murky waters of Danish post-colonial history and conscience and every step of the way she is discouraged by the authorities. Sensing that something is wrong, she embarks on a search that takes her into the heart of a scientific conspiracy and a secret expedition located on an isolated glaciated island off Greenland. There she discovers the clues to both the young boy’s and his father’s deaths: a meteorite, alive in some way, infested with a lethal parasite. A secret that strong forces in society are desperate to keep.
The Hermit, by Thomas Rydahl
Awarded with both the Danish Debutant Award and The Glass Key for best Nordic Crime novel, Rydahl should thank his brainwaves for inventing a highly unusual hero; Erhard, an elderly Danish expat. Living as a recluse with two goats, he is disillusioned with the ways of modern life and failed family relations, and he has nothing to lose. When he discovers an abandoned car, with the body of a young boy in a cardboard box in the trunk, on his Spanish island of Fuerteventura, the police want to cut investigations short not to harm tourism, and nobody believes that a hermit, with no knowledge of cell phones, internet or computers, could possibly solve the mystery. Off beat and different, highly compelling.
A Conspiracy of Faith, by Jussi Adler Olsen
A bottle is found by police in Scotland. Inside is a cry for help, scripted in blood. When the bottle eventually lands in the hands of Danish detective Carl Morck he sets his quirky cold case group into action. The hunt is on for a madman kidnapper who preys on members of an austere religious sect, exploiting their reclusive nature to ransom two siblings at a time without fear of the police finding out. Morck faces the obstacles, small and large, by perceiving them as essentially analogues to everything that Denmark’s welfare state has turned rotten. The end takes us to a remote boathouse where the suspense is built to a perfect pitch, leading to a very satisfying end.
Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
Okay, Tom’s an Englishman, but he qualifies on this list because he is a son of a Swedish mother! A harrowing and extremely well-researched account of the cruelties of Stalinist Russia, the novel sets a crash course into the paranoia and denial of the totalitarian state where there “is no crime”. The book is inspired by the true story of a serial killer in Russia who was eventually found guilty of no less than 52 murders. In an era where the Soviet system was portrayed as “utopia” and “paradise on earth”, the concept of such a criminal was inconceivable and unacceptable by the authorities and the political apparatus. The detective, Leo Demidov, who catches the madman in the book, has to risk his family, life and career to get to the truth. A chilling twist as we near the end reveals a very close personal tie between the hunter and the hunted. A grim, page turning read and outstanding debut.
Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg
One of the all-time Swedish classics! A romance thriller that had it been published today might have been labelled psychological thriller. The book’s main character is a physician who struggles with depression. He falls in love with his antagonist’s young beautiful wife who complains that her sex life with her immoral priest husband is killing her. To come to her rescue Doctor Glas plots to murder her husband. The book deals with issues such as abortion, women’s rights and suicide, and when it was first published in 1905, it raised hell and the author was vilified. This was compulsory reading at school, but it is later in life one truly understands the depths of character and situation, masterfully told by Hjalmar Söderberg.