Nordic Noir in November
We had an excellent turnout of CNS members and friends to hear Professor Gunnar Iversen of Carleton University talk to us about Nordic Noir on a dark and dreary night in November. This was one occasion when Zoom served us extremely well. It was nice not to have to venture out on that particular evening.
I confess I was surprised by the number of mild-mannered and seemingly civilized CNS members who apparently spend their spare time steeped in gore and in the company of the most dysfunctional and psychopathic people imaginable! But the eager participation of these very individuals in our Nordic Noir discussion exposed their morbid literary pursuits for all to hear. And Professor Iversen gave us all quite a bit of insight into the appeal of this recent genre of crime fiction.
Professor Iversen is a film scholar who has a strong interest in Nordic Noir books, films, and series, and he had clearly given a lot of thought to what differentiates from other crime genres. We were mesmerized by what he had to say.
He started off by noting the significance of the term “Nordic Noir” itself. He quoted the famous Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin, who once argued that “Scandinavian crime writers are no better than Scottish ones, they just have better PR.” Professor Iversen agrees with Rankin that the term “Nordic Noir’ has itself gone a long way in developing its popularity and recognition as a distinct crime genre.
So how did this rather odd term develop? It had its origin in France where, in 1945, the Gallimard publishing company created a new type of crime novel series called “La Série Noire.” Its focus was on gritty American-type novels by authors such as Raymond Chandler, far removed from the more genteel British style by authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.
The British authors focus on solving the mystery of “whodunnit?” The setting is a middle class environment and the crime is presented as a kind of puzzle for the reader to solve before the end of the book. The authors parcel out small clues and offer insights into the psychology of the various characters. In the end, money is nearly always the motive for the murder. The reader expects to be able to solve the puzzle using logic. This is the so-called “soft-boiled tradition.”
American crime fiction is different. The murder takes place either in some sordid location such as a back alley, or within the upper echelons of society. Discovering the identity of the murderer is important, but there is also a focus on why the murder happened. The motives are more existential than in British novels - not simply the lust for money but more cynical, violent forces are at work. The American crime novels are also a commentary on current social attitudes. They tell the story of American urban life following the Great Depression and after World War II. “Film Noir” was coined during WWII to describe films that were based on the “hard-boiled” American tradition.
“Nordic Noir” came into usage in the early 2,000’s and is linked to the American hard-boiled tradition.
The paradox of Nordic Noir is that it is set in the countries that are frequently listed as the happiest and wealthiest in the world. By dealing with what is below the surface of society, it forces the reader to ask what is really going on in these seemingly peaceful places. This crime genre is about much more than “who done it?”y. Police work, the media, and politics are scrutinized and there is often a link between the back alleys and the upper echelons of society.
Professor Iversen explained that Nordic Noir tells the story a little differently than the American tradition, especially when it comes to creating the main characters. These people are not well-functioning members of society. They are a dysfunctional bunch, troubled, downbeat, and often in poor health. They have social problems and can be uncomfortable dealing with their superiors. These flaws make them more multi-dimensional and easier to identify with, even when they are unlikeable. This is also true of the villains, which makes their motivations clearer, often adding an additional layer of social commentary.
The popularity of Nordic Noir, in Professor Iversen’s opinion, stems from these differences which add a certain “depth of flavour,” and this depth of flavour come from three ingredients: the plot, the characters, and the location. The best Nordic Noir authors masterfully manage the action so that the reader waffles between certainty and uncertainty as to the identity of the perpetrator. This is what makes these novels so hard to put down. The characters are lifelike in their roughness and social messiness. They resonate with the reader.
The location in the Nordic countries adds an element of the exotic to those who are not used to a wintry landscape and who may be reading about a country and society which is very different from their own. This adds a certain “acidic flavour to the sauce” to quote Professor Iversen. He also noted that Nordic Noir films and series are filmed on location, which makes them more gritty and realistic than those filmed in studios.
Image from the Trailer for “The Snowman,” 2017 film based on Jo Nesbø’s novel
A few decades ago, crime novels were not considered very respectable reading in the Nordic countries themselves, but this has changed completely in recent years. Professor Iversen believes that Nordic Noir offers Nordics a vehicle for suppressed anger that is the flip side of their affluent welfare states. In what are on the surface very civilized societies, people may suppress violent feelings. Nordic Noir expresses the biggest emotions of joy, sorrow, fear, anger, and revenge in very melodramatic ways, while working through them to end, for the most part, on a positive note.
Many insightful questions and keenly observed discussion followed the talk, revealing the extent to which our own generally genteel members pursue their macabre mania for Nordic Noir. It was indeed the perfect talk for a nasty November night!