In from the Cold: Northern Noir by Ewa Sherman

The main organisers were Dr Karen Seago, Dr Minna Vuohelainen and Prof Amanda Hopkinson (academics from City, University of London) and Rosie Goldsmith (European Literature Network). The format really worked: authors interviews, talks and three workshops: Translating crime fiction with Don Bartlett; Purpose and prose in the modern crime novel: a 10-part guide, with Henry Sutton, and Criminals, investigators and social justice: a critical discussion, with Karen Seago and Minna Vuohelainen. I loved the one run by Don Bartlett, sharing his experiences, and setting three tasks for people in groups, such as translating a short paragraph from Jo Nesbø’s Redbreast into English. The variety of languages in the room made it so fun, especially as sometimes there is no correct translation when it comes to literature, and context is so important. Don Bartlett and Kari Dickson engaged in a Translation Slam later. Karen Seago oversaw comparing their work on the initial pages of Torkil Damhaug’s book A Fifth Season (En femte årstid – not out in English yet), and how the interpretation, past and modern context effect the creation of a bridge between the languages. Translator becomes an investigator.

Here is a recap of authors’ conversations.

Indrek Hargla from Estonia, author of Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church, considers himself to be a science fiction writer, using folklore, fantastical beasts and adventures, just like the ancient Greeks did. Religious life versus ghosts which have always been with people in the stories feature in the series of seven books, though only two are available in English. The series is set in the 15th century Tallinn, with Estonia at the edge of Christian lands and the last foothold before the East, and the construction of St Olaf’s Church, soon to become the tallest building in the world; a town of foreign merchants and engineers. Where women played significant role when men were away, as housekeepers, accountants, authors of business letters and pedigree/family tree/ lineage books. However, by the third book Hargla had decided the detective’s wife was redundant to the developing story, however, he spared a very smart daughter. The main character needs to be depressed… Although he loves Agatha Christie, Hargla’s work is everything that Christie’s isn’t, as summed up by Amanda Hopkinson.

Finn Karo Hämäläinen (Cruel is the Night) also cites Christie as a huge inspiration on his writing, along with Arthur Conan Doyle, Jo Nesbø and Peter Høeg, hence elements of the classic detective fiction are present in his work. He’s an impatient author, but passionate about literature and the stock market, working across different genres, including editing literary magazines. He feels that crime fiction lends itself to a vast number of social matters, and financial thrillers, a goldmine of themes (globalisation of financial sector, Greek debt crisis etc) are about Nordic economics, too. They are dealing with what’s right and wrong presented through often unpleasant characters, and the reader must work hard to untangle issues thrown by the author. The dark humour comes from a character taking himself too seriously.  The author considers the form of a thriller as a musical. ‘When reading a thriller, you need a catchy melody’. In reply to the question: ‘To what extent do you see yourself as a Finnish writer?’ Hämäläinen replied: ‘My fatherland is my mother tongue’.

A degree of humour is similarly important for Kjell Ola Dahl whose protagonists Frølich and Gunnarstanda constantly engage in ironic sarcastic banter. Dahl used to work as a taxi driver in a tiny Oslo (back then) and loves exploring the city. He even went into Oslo’s sewage system while writing Faithless to show that the character was sinking mentally and physically. As a writer he might have lots of good intentions but at the end the story reveals itself and takes its own direction. Influenced by Henrik Ibsen and the notion that in crime fiction the past always effects the present, he works very broadly, going into different genres and issues (political approach to writing, white collar crime, psychiatric cases) and producing screenplays. Dahl takes up to a year and a half to finish a book but doesn’t believe the term Nordic Noir as Scandinavian crime fiction is very wide, and always changing.

Fellow Norwegian Torkil Damhaug, author of contemporary psychological novels, also locates his stories in Oslo. His quartet of books,  just like four seasons, are closely connected stand alone books with no central figure to follow. They were not conceived as a series but writing became almost like an addiction and then a fifth book appeared,(though not translated into English yet). Damhaug enjoys creating careful structure and planting suggestions in readers’ mind, throwing red herrings, leaving clues for readers to get involved, and works like an illusionist changing perspectives, as he has to surprise himself when writing. He is especially interested in outsiders, the characters that don’t fit, relationships between loners and society. Mental illness is always present, and so is empathy. With this comes the eternal question how a person gets involved in crime, whether through a force of circumstances, someone else’s decision or coincidence, and whether evil exists, and how it can be explained. Certain Signs That You Are Dead (Oslo Crime Files 4) is the latest book translated into English.

Who doesn’t start with the weather? And how do you make entertainment of tragedy and neglect? asked Henry Sutton, academic and author of ten novels, during his talk: On the Edge: North Sea Noir. The classic line: ‘The rain rained’, taken from Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, is both descriptive and thematic. This 1970 novel was adapted into the cult film Get Carter, and influenced the noir of English crime fiction, which is now  represented at the events such as Granite Noir, Newcastle Noir and Hull Noir which encompass other shades of crime fiction too. Relentless heavy weather and sense of moodiness. Sutton analysed the difference between terms Noir (feeling of dread and gloom, grim and melancholic, Albert Camus) and hard boiled (more about content, text and atmosphere). Not all Noir is hard boiled, and vice versa. His own work concentrates on East Anglia, North Sea, area which is mostly bleak, windy, lacking hills and mountains, with vast skies above. Swedish Ystad has Kurt Wallander. North Sea Noir – Stuart McBride, Nick Quantrill. ‘Fiction revolves around authenticity’ but is it fiction’s job to describe a place?… Definitely food for thought… Sutton’s latest book is under the name of Harry Brett: Time to Win.

Håkan Nesser, one of Sweden’s most popular crime writers, sold only 90 copies of his first book, a romance. In 1993 his first crime fiction book was published. Nesser is well-known for the Inspector Van Veeteren series. The author feels that the gist of the crime novel should be story itself.  He doesn’t consider himself to be a political writer: You can’t avoid society but I don’t go in too deep. Yet crime novels are very good at dealing with everyday issues as most crimes are very boring so he finds it fascinating to develop characters over several books, and understanding as why a good person commits murder. The Darkest Day finally introduces Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti to the English readers. Barbarotti Quartet, started more than 10 years ago, turned into a quintet, yet the detective was not originally intended in this family saga about missing people. He appeared past page 180 to deal with the two retired teachers, married for too long, and their unhappy adult children, once famous for being on the reality show.  Nesser is currently busy with the project Intrigo, adaptation of his book trilogy by director Daniel Alfredson, who had previously directed The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.

Rosie Goldsmith with flair and knowledge chaired the mega-panel on use and misuse of the term Nordic Noir. Questions, comments and musings flew freely, and here are some interesting points:

Crime fiction is a very contemporary dramatic form of writing for our times when things happen (Sutton) but to read a good crime novel is simply to read a good novel (Damhaug).

A collective sense of belonging to one genre doesn’t seem prevalent. I’m inspired by Raymond Chandler and the Catalan Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (Dahl) We find things that are similar such as weather and mood (Hämäläinen), maybe we don’t see the that ourselves in our own writing but there are extreme differences in weather, melancholy found in the atmosphere, and secrets that are underneath very stable Nordic society (Damhaug). Every writer wants to stand on own two feet (Nesser), especially when setting books in medieval times (Hargla). Also, my approach is different: I’ve always enjoyed crime fiction concentrating on the question of who; it’s obvious why – one of the seven deadly sins (Hargla).

And the weather? I use it mainly for identification (Dahl); it goes into the mind, making a set for a story (Hämäläinen), you need to put some stuff between the cliff-hangers (Nesser)…

Asked about the next type of Noir both Hämäläinen and Dahl referred to their favourite lakes: Saimaa Noir and Mjøsa Noir respectively, Damhaug mentioned Fantasy popular among young readers, Hargla suggested Retro, and Sutton thinks that Literary Noir will be the next big thing.

Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen (University College London), who started the Nordic Noir Book Club at UCL, delivered a keynote lecture Familiar crimes in the Nordic Welfare States. His excellent analysis covered various strong female characters: Liza Marklund’s crime reporter Annika Bengtzon (The Bomber, first in the series, a story about the explosive yet necessary desire to become an individual first in a modern welfare society), Stieg Larsson’s controversial and unconventional Lisbeth Salander, and even Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, the autonomous child within the moral logic of the Swedish welfare state. He also looked at the portrayal of the broken Nordic detectives’ families.

The Scandinavian tradition of ‘family viewing’ and togetherness is set against the ‘state first, family second approach’ in The Killing (Forbrydelsen) and The Bridge (Bron / Broen) and family crimes in the Scandinavian TV crime series so favoured by British audience. For more on the crime novel possessing social knowledge go to the comprehensive and highly recommended Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

At the event The Nordic Riveter (made possible by West Camel and Anna Blasiak) was also launched. You must get a copy of this insightful and fascinating, well, riveting, publication, and not only because Gunnar Staalesen is the guest editor!

Marketing ploy or not, Northern Noir, characterised by dark, wintry settings and even darker themes, and frequently addressing various social issues, is here to stay! Skål!

By Ewa Sherman

This blog was originally published on on 17 November 2017.

Category: Other Blogs



  1. Thank you, Fiona, for your comment and the link. Also, I really appreciate getting to know an incredible book by Elisabeth Åsbrink: 1947. When Now Begins, in your translation. I loved it!

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