The Bridge, Headhunters - Why Are We So Hungry For Scandinavian Crime Fiction?

Here comes another… like a bus.

Slipping seamlessly into the Saturday night slot vacated by The Killing and then Borgen, comes another Nordic thriller, The Bridge.

And if you can’t decide which you prefer of the wave of fiction from those cold, beautiful parts – the Swedish offerings (Stieg Larrson’s offerings, Wallander), or the Danish smorgasbord (The Killing, Borgen, Those Who Kill) – well, in The Bridge, it seems they can’t decide either. The first episode finds a body discovered on the Oresund Bridge that links the two countries, its position on the tarmac exactly half and half in either jurisdiction, meaning a cross-border investigation on screen, and representing a co-production between the two countries off it.

Meanwhile, in cinemas, Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters – which somehow manages to be both a black comedy as well as a gruesome thriller – has seen its initial limited release in the UK extended and broadened due to audience demand. Nesbo is well on his way to becoming “the next Stieg Larsson” as his Harry Hole books fly off the shelves in his native Norway, and he’s just the highest-profile player in a stream of fiction to come from that part of the world that has been lapped up by the masses, particularly Brits.

So why do we love Scandi-crime so? And how did Borgen manage to make Danish coalition politics must-see television? For me, it’s everyone’s unsmiling, bleakly beautiful faces, the stark lines of the landscape, the effortless bilingual skills of the characters, and the interiors – like having the very best of the Ikea display living rooms all to yourself – but there must be something deeper going on. I asked Barry Forshaw, the author of In A Cold Climate A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, to explain why we can’t get enough…

First of all, does this reflect reality?

BF: Even less than Colin Dexter’s Morse. Iceland has 2 murders a year, on average, whereas the average novel has 8 to 10. You won’t find a single Scandinavian crime who doesn’t say, “We have to massage things.”

Wherein lies the appeal?

Well, I think English and American crime writers get rather annoyed and, after a couple of glasses of wine, they’ll point out we have some good crime writers too.

But I think what people are drawn to is that you don’t just get a crime being played out – in British fiction, generally speaking, there’s a crime and it’s finally solved – but also bigger social issues being discussed, things like immigration. It’s a big issue in Britain, but it’s come as more of a recent shock to Scandinavians, being threatened by outsiders and forced to question the national identity. So I think those crime writers have more to say about society, you get more value. Serious things are taken on board as well as being really good crime thrillers.

And then Borgen shows us the political side of things, and Headhunters somehow manages to be funny as well as chilling, so suddenly you see there’s a bit more going on than just paunchy, middle-aged detectives who can’t relate to their families.

Suddenly, these perfect Scandinavian nations where we assume everything is perfect are really just like us, so there’s a touch of Schadenfreude, too.

Plus, don’t forget, we think all Scandinavian fiction is good, but only the good stuff reaches us. There’s a lot of crap too, it just doesn’t get translated.

Does something get lost in translation when overseas film-makers come calling?

Undoubtedly. The US version of The Killing isn’t bad at all, but by placing it in the US, it becomes essentially another crime show. David Fincher wisely kept his version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Sweden.

You do wonder what Mark Wahlberg can do with Headhunters, because it calls for a very short hero, that’s one of the big points of the story, so it should be someone else… Is Mark Wahlberg man enough to play a short, very insecure man?

There was a big fanfare when the original Wallander was being filmed, and then Kenneth Branagh came over to film his English-speaking version, and everyone asked, “Who?”

Do the natives enjoy all this as much as us?

It’s probably about the same. The producers of shows like The Killing and Borgen knew people expected their shows to be good, what they didn’t expect was the British to take them on. They say, “We make a lot of bad TV too, but nobody gets to see that.”

Stieg Larsson also moved the subject off the books page. Three things happened: he created a totally original heroine in Lisbeth Salander, he writes three massive novels, and then he dies prematurely… it’s a triple whammy. Nobody reads his novels without knowing his story.

There appear to be a lot of strong female characters – is this just representative of Scandinavian society?

Completely - it’s reflective of society, which has given rise to it being believable as good fiction, so nobody really blinks any more. Sarah Lund (The Killing) is surrounded by policemen who don’t take her seriously, but it’s not that she’s a woman, it’s just that she’s a bit of a wild card.

What’s your favourite?

I am a fan of Jo Nesbo (Headhunters) when he’s at his best, The Snowman is excellent, and I loved his early work. I called him “the next Stieg Larrson” on the book cover, and that has become self-fulfilling.

Doesn’t this lead to a dumbing down of the brand if people are starting to write with one eye on the international audience?

Yes, something I think Nesbo is aware of – his new book sets his hero firmly back in Oslo. You can see why authors want to move on, but if you try and turn something into a Dan Brown, country-hopping blockbuster, well… it’s not what we read Scandinavian crime fiction for.

Is there plenty more where this lot came from?

There is no end in sight. We’ve had Those Who Kill, The Bridge is starting, and there are more crime books coming down the pipe, so there’s no end in sight. The problem is when it starts to read like Scandinavian crime, then it’s not good, it’s only ticking the boxes. So the challenge now will be to avoid the clichés we’re all enjoying so much.

Headhunters is in cinemas across the UK. The Bridge starts tonight on BBC4. Some pics below...

The Bridge